Friday, March 20, 2009


Though $53.6 billion in “stabilization” funds has dramatically softened the blow, several states and public school districts still need to cut teacher payrolls to make ends meet.

California, for one, intends to cut about 20,000 teachers - about 6 percent of public school teachers in the state - of which 5,500 are in the struggling Los Angeles public schools. School districts in Arizona, Michigan, New Hampshire and other states are also planning layoffs. If the economy doesn’t get better, all school systems will face even tougher circumstances when those federal supplements run out, a time not so far from now.

It’s unfortunate that any teachers at all are losing their jobs for no other reason than the financial situation, but it’s outrageous that the cuts will come without any thought given to which teachers would be least missed.

The powerful collective-bargaining agreements that govern teacher employment in just about every public school system in the United States leave little to no discretion to these systems in deciding which teachers should get the axe when times are tough. Public school layoffs occur by seniority. Teacher classroom success plays no role in determining who stays or who goes.

That’s too bad for kids, because who teaches them makes an enormous difference in how much they learn. Empirical research finds that teacher quality is the single most important educational input within a school’s control. The best estimates are that the difference in effectiveness between a good teacher and a bad one, judged in terms of student performance, is equivalent to a year’s worth of academic work.

An even wider body of research shows that the number of years that a teacher has been employed in a classroom is simply unrelated to her ability to advance student proficiency. We now know that a teacher is at her worst her first year in the classroom, she gets a little better during the next two years, and she never really improves after that.

If there is no reason to believe that their experience makes them more effective, why does the public school system favor more senior teachers? Because it is designed for the adults who work in it, not the students it is supposed to serve. Teachers’ unions plead that their members must be treated like their counterparts in the medical and legal professions, but they demand to be protected as if they worked on a factory floor and to be paid as uniformly.

Not even teachers unions’ mouthpieces argue that classroom effectiveness is directly related to seniority. Instead, they say seniority is the only “fair” way to distribute layoffs because we don’t have accurate ways of measuring teacher ability. But that’s like saying we can’t build entirely earthquake-proof homes so we may as well build them out of straw. No organization has a perfect measure of employee effectiveness. Therefore firms use a variety of tools to judge the quality of their workers. Public schools can and should do the same.

The unions get the most squeamish when standardized test scores of their students are used to assess teacher quality. It’s true that test scores are imperfect measures of student proficiency. Even when researchers focus on “value-added” performance - that is, the gains that students make in a year, rather than their overall score, which is strongly influenced by factors outside of the school’s or the teacher’s control - they must grapple with a host of statistical issues. Consequently, it would be irresponsible to use test scores alone in making staffing cuts or allocating pay.

But test scores are certainly reliable enough to inform such decisions. While it is true some students might not make test-score gains for any number of reasons outside of a teacher’s control, low standardized-test results can at least put up a warning flag.

Principals’ observations are another underrated means of evaluating teacher quality. Recent research by Brian Jacob and Lars Lefgren finds that principals are in fact very good at identifying both the most effective and the least effective teachers, though understandably less good at ranking those closer to the average. The most reliable system, of course, would employ a combination of both qualitative and quantitative measures.

In his important speech on education policy the other day, President Obama challenged school systems to remove ineffective teachers from the classroom. But as California and other school systems are finding, they can’t do that unless they dramatically change teachers’ terms of employment. Doing so should in fact elevate the profession as a whole by protecting and rewarding its most shining examples.

Marcus Winters is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute.

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