Thursday, April 7, 2011

Yer Out: Analyzing the Last-Hired, First-Fired Policy Debate

"Teaching huh? Why, that's a great choice! That's one of those recession-proof jobs..."

The above statement is one I heard time and time again when I first entered the teaching profession. For some reason or another my extended family seemed to offer me more advice than Benjamin Braddock in The Graduate. Whereas the clear choice for Benjamin was "plastics" the clear choice for me was public education. I came from a top-tier university and I was willing to teach in urban areas with those populations considered to be "at-risk" for the same amount of pay as my colleagues who opted to teach in more affluent areas. No matter how bad the economy got, society would always need people to teach its children. Right?

Fast forward four years. I personally have had three jobs in four years. The first job lasted two years and I removed myself from that situation due to professional disagreements over where the school was headed. I then long-term subbed for a year but that position was cut at the end of the academic year. I now am at a first-year charter school and I hope (knock on wood) that this position will finally give me some longevity that I have been desperately seeking. As rough as my initial introduction to public education has been, I am forced to remind myself how fortunate I have been. Because, due to current economic situations it could be much, much worse.

Currently, the state of California is faced with the largest deficit in the state's history. Previous economic policies have finally caught up with the state and not even The Governator himself could rescue the state from the impending financial crisis. Thanks to a current $20 billion deficit, all sectors are being forced to deal with layoffs and the education sector is no exception. Having been in San Diego for the previous two years I have seen a moratorium on new hiring last year and that moratorium will continue this year as well as having additional teacher layoffs. Here we are, in the nation's eighth largest school district where a third of the schools are already failing and instead of giving additional support to these schools we are taking away valuable teachers from them. Again, another prime example of this country's bass ackwards attitude toward public education.

The problem them becomes which teachers get the ax. Measuring teacher performance has been one of the hot-button issues in education circles as of late. The idea of merit pay has come into question with some districts proposing the idea that teachers should be paid more based on how well their students do on standardized tests. This has raised an outcry from those teachers who teach in lower socio-economic schools as they would be very capable teachers but their students would most likely not do as well as the affluent counterparts. Just because a teacher's students have high scores is not necessarily a reflection of good teaching just as low scores are not necessarily a reflection of poor teaching. There are too many extenuating factors to solely use the idea of student test scores in evaluating teachers. So, if we can't use test scores, how should we evaluate teachers?

The next train of thought is that of teacher evaluations. Surely, this is even across all playing fields, right? Principals have fairly generic evaluations forms and teachers get evaluated at least twice a year. These evaluation forms look at various things such as teacher preparedness, the content being taught, the interaction between the teacher and students, as well as the overall effectiveness of the learning environment. Administrators have certain principles and philosophies that they feel mesh well with their school and they expect all their teachers to adhere to these philosophies. Teachers should be able to do all of the above things while being in line with the school culture and if they can, this should be positively identified on a formal evaluation. Makes perfect sense, doesn't it?

The problem is that often times these evaluations are simply ineffective. The first issue is that at larger schools, it is difficult for administrators to find the time to evaluate all their teachers as least twice a year. I am at a small charter school and our administrators are so busy that they themselves have yet to formally evaluate us and there are only seven of us currently on campus. The second issue is that evaluations based on two lessons out of hundreds a year is not an accurate depiction of a teacher. I remember getting formally reviewed by a mentoring teacher the day after a school wide assembly. Classes were extended for the day so I had my students for twice as long as I normally had them so I essentially had to do two lessons into one. My mentoring teacher criticized the overall continuity of the lesson and gave me extremely low marks. This was one of the two evaluations for that school year that went into my permanent file and there were no second chances.

So we cannot use test scores and we cannot use evaluations, so what is left? Experience. Number of years in the field. That's right, the bulk of school districts today when faced with having to fire teachers have resorted to what's known as the last-hired, first-fired policy. Thanks to teacher's unions, public school teachers receive tenure after three years. After those three years, these teachers are guaranteed a job unless they somehow make it to the headline news by being caught in a sex scandal with a student. These teachers are essentially immune from being fired, so who's left? That's right, the young up and coming teacher who has been in a classroom for one or two years. The teacher full of idealism, who is leading after school clubs, who is staying up late on nights and weekends to make really good and fun lesson plans is tossed off quicker than a dress on prom night. After all, since all teachers are the same, we may as well get rid of the ones with the least experience, right?

The problem with this line of thinking is that it fails in so many ways. First and foremost, the legality of the last-hired, first-fired policy has already come under intense scrutiny in Los Angeles, where there is an impending lawsuit against the district for implementing this same policy last summer. Secondly, as mentioned, it destroys the drive and vigor of a generation of educators who are ready and willing to work under difficult circumstances. These teachers are fresh out of teacher preparation programs and have learned how to work with students with special needs, English language learners, high-achieving students, as well as how to incorporate technology and the most up-to-date pedagogical methods into their teaching. These are the ones who are really going to go above and beyond and truly, genuinely believe that they can make a difference in the education profession. To give them the ax would crush their dreams and spirits and we would lose out on a generation of talented, dedicated educators.

The third, and perhaps most troubling issue that I see is the fact that these layoffs are not uniform across all schools. The more affluent schools somehow, some way will lose a smaller percentage of their staff as opposed to those schools who deal with students of lower socio-economic status. So, here we are in San Diego with a third of our schools failing and we are going to actually take away teachers from those schools. Not only are we going to take away teachers from those schools but we are going to take away those young, idealistic teachers. You know, the ones who chose to teach in difficult situations because they really thought they could make a difference and reach the students. Instead of having those teachers stay, we are going to remove them, leaving these failing schools with even fewer resources than they had before. This same mentality also doesn't help the schools who are on the cusp of failing as well. Removing teachers and ruining any kind of continuity these schools might have had is a recipe for disaster and will more than likely push a whole new group of schools into the failing zone in the coming year.

So, what's our answer? Unlike some of my previous posts, where I say there is no simple answer, there is actually a viable solution to this problem: We need to shift our view on education in this country. We need to make education a priority. We need to have political candidates discuss education. We need to remove it's entertainment section on its front page and replace it with education. The truth is that we as a society who prides itself on its education, should never find itself in this ridiculous catch-22 situation. The schools are failing but we need to cut jobs but if we cut jobs then the schools will fail... Complete and utter hogwash. Let's make education a top domestic priority and then go from there. Let's stop the cycle of stupidity by putting ourselves in these precarious situations. Some of my best friends are on the chopping block this year and it pains me so much because I know they are making a difference in young men and women's lives. Let's re-invest in our nation's future by first re-investing in our nation's teachers. Once we do that, we can then, and only then, begin to have a real discussion about where education is at today.

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