Ending the Myth That Seniority Protects Bad Teachers

by Christopher Paslay

High teacher attrition rates show that tenure is not preventing the bad apples from being weeded out.        

There’s a very real belief in the United States that tenure and seniority are keeping large numbers of burned-out, incompetent teachers in classrooms where they rob students of their right to learn.  The National Council on Teacher Quality’s new report “Teacher Quality Roadmap: Improving Policies and Practices in the School District of Philadelphia” is a case in point.  According to the Inquirer, the report stated:

Tenure and satisfactory evaluations are virtually meaningless for Philadelphia educators, and bad teachers can linger in the public school system too long. . . . Teacher pay ought to be revamped to keep strong performers, and effectiveness, not start date, should guide layoff decisions.

Does tenure provide lousy teachers with a lifetime appointment in the classroom?

Hardly.

The truth is that it’s extremely difficult for an incompetent teacher to remain in the classroom for an extended period of time in the 21st century.  The idea that American public schools are housing a significant population of burned-out educators milking the system just isn’t true.

A closer look at teacher attrition rates—as well as the profiles of America’s teachers—yields interesting results.  Here are some statistics from the 2007 policy brief “The High Cost of Teacher Turnover” and the report “Profiles of Teachers in the U.S. 2011”:

  • Teacher turnover is costing America $7.3 billion annually
  • 17% of all of public school teachers quit every year
  • 20 percent of urban teachers quit yearly
  • Over half of America’s new teachers (56%) quit within five years
  • In Philadelphia from 1999 to 2005, the teacher turnover rate (70%) was higher than the student dropout rate (42%)
  • In 2011, over a quarter of America’s public school teachers (26%) had five years experience or less
  • 21% of America’s public school teachers are 29 years old or younger

Teacher attrition is similar when it comes to alternative certification programs and charter schools.  Over 50% of Teach for America educators leave their assignments after two years.  A study tracking teachers working for KIPP schools (Knowledge is Power Program) in the Bay Area revealed annual turnover rates which ranged from 18 percent to 49 percent from 2003-04 to 2007-08.

The truth is, despite teacher tenure and seniority, public schools are not overpopulated with long term educational louses hiding in the cracks.  In fact, the notion that tenure creates a lifetime appointment for teacher incompetence is greatly exaggerated.

America’s public school system is self-regulating.  In other words, incompetent teachers don’t last very long, as the above data shows.  The biggest factor driving bad teachers from the classroom are the kids themselves.  If teachers can’t connect with their students, if they argue, butt heads, and create a toxic learning environment, the odds are they won’t survive.  It’s too draining a situation—physically, mentally, and emotionally.

The same is true for parents and school administrators.  Incompetent teachers are in constant disharmony with the mothers and fathers of their pupils and spend the majority of their energy battling principals.  Couple this with more rigorous classroom observations and school overhauls at the hands of No Child Left Behind, and most so-called “lousy” teachers are at the breaking point; it is all but impossible for them to hang on to their jobs for “life”.

Bad teachers do exist, of course, but in no greater quantity than in any other profession.  You can argue test scores prove the existence of bad teachers—that an unacceptable percentage of students aren’t reading or doing math at grade-level—but does this prove teachers are lousy or incompetent?  Does the fact that homicide rates in big cities are unacceptable prove our police force is loaded with deadwood?  Is our country’s unacceptable obesity rate an indictment of American nutritionists?

The National Council on Teacher Quality’s new report, in fact, recycles an old argument, one that Michelle Rhee, former Washington public schools chief, has been pushing for some time.  In a November 2011 Inquirer commentary headlined “Experienced teachers aren’t the problem,” I refuted her claim:

Rhee insisted that Last In, First Out laws are getting rid of our best teachers, arguing that layoffs should be based on job performance instead of seniority. . . . The authors [of the study Rhee quotes] do admit, however, that first-year teachers are generally ineffective, and that it takes a teacher an average of five or more years to become skilled. This is not surprising: New teachers tend to struggle with classroom management, they lack experience and objectivity, and they have yet to perfect their instruction methods.

. . . If all the teachers in a particular school are rated effective, what’s to stop a principal from balancing the budget by laying off the highest-paid teachers and keeping the least expensive ones? What would protect experienced teachers from politically motivated reprisals if they encourage their students to think critically about school reform and other public policies? And what will keep the new teachers we’re relying on from constantly leaving the system? In my 15 years with the Philadelphia School District, I’ve watched at least a dozen Teach for America educators leave after fulfilling their two-year contracts, off to use their urban teaching experience as resumé padding.

“Last in, first out” isn’t causing us to lose our best teachers. Far from it. Ending seniority-based layoffs might occasionally save a young talent. But it would also harm teacher morale, leave experienced teachers vulnerable to budget cuts and experimental reforms, and populate our schools with inexperienced teachers who are likely to leave.

Scrapping seniority isn’t going to improve the quality of America’s teachers, although it may do irreparable harm to our city’s best educators.

*This blog post is an adaption from a 3/20/12 post titled, “Ending the Myth that Tenure Protects Bad Teachers.”

Ending the Myth That Tenure Protects Bad Teachers

by Christopher Paslay

High teacher attrition rates show that tenure is not preventing the bad apples from being weeded out.        

There’s a very real belief in the United States that tenure and collective bargaining are keeping large numbers of burned-out, incompetent teachers in classrooms where they rob students of their right to learn.  The Philadelphia Inquirer’s editorial “Firing bad teachers” is a case in point:

“One way to improve public education is to speed up the process to remove bad teachers from the classroom.

Unfortunately, getting rid of bad apples has become nearly impossible under union tenure rules that were crafted to protect teachers’ rights but too often deny children a decent education.

The antiquated system fails to hold teachers with a bad performance record accountable. They should not be allowed to wear tenure like a badge of honor that entitles them to a lifetime appointment in the classroom.”

Does tenure provide lousy teachers with a lifetime appointment in the classroom? 

Hardly. 

The truth is that it’s extremely difficult for an incompetent teacher to remain in the classroom for an extended period of time in the 21st century.  The idea that American public schools are housing a significant population of burned-out educators milking the system just isn’t true. 

A closer look at teacher attrition rates—as well as the profiles of America’s teachers—yields interesting results.  Here are some statistics from the 2007 policy brief “The High Cost of Teacher Turnover” and the report “Profiles of Teachers in the U.S. 2011”:

  • Teacher turnover is costing America $7.3 billion annually
  • 17% of all of public school teachers quit every year
  • 20 percent of urban teachers quit yearly
  • Over half of America’s new teachers (56%) quit within five years
  • In Philadelphia from 1999 to 2005, the teacher turnover rate (70%) was higher than the student dropout rate (42%)
  • In 2011, over a quarter of America’s public school teachers (26%) had five years experience or less 
  • 21% of America’s public school teachers are 29 years old or younger

Teacher attrition is similar when it comes to alternative certification programs and charter schools.  Over 50% of Teach for America educators leave their assignments after two years.  A study tracking teachers working for KIPP schools (Knowledge is Power Program) in the Bay Area revealed annual turnover rates which ranged from 18 percent to 49 percent from 2003-04 to 2007-08.      

The truth is, despite teacher tenure and collective bargaining by unions, public schools are not overpopulated with long term educational louses hiding in the cracks.  In fact, the notion that tenure creates a lifetime appointment for teacher incompetence is greatly exaggerated.            

America’s public school system is self-regulating.  In other words, incompetent teachers don’t last very long, as the above data shows.  The biggest factor driving bad teachers from the classroom are the kids themselves.  If teachers can’t connect with their students, if they argue, butt heads, and create a toxic learning environment, the odds are they won’t survive.  It’s too draining a situation—physically, mentally, and emotionally. 

The same is true for parents and school administrators.  Incompetent teachers are in constant disharmony with the mothers and fathers of their pupils and spend the majority of their energy battling principals.  Couple this with more rigorous classroom observations and school overhauls at the hands of No Child Left Behind, and most so-called “lousy” teachers are at the breaking point; it is all but impossible for them to hang on to their jobs for “life”.     

Bad teachers do exist, of course, but in no greater quantity than in any other profession.  You can argue test scores prove the existence of bad teachers—that an unacceptable percentage of students aren’t reading or doing math at grade-level—but does this prove teachers are lousy or incompetent?  Does the fact that homicide rates in big cities are unacceptable prove our police force is rife with deadwood?  Is our country’s unacceptable obesity rate an indictment of American nutritionists?   

Interestingly, school teachers and their unions remain society’s whipping boy.  Dom Giordano’s recent commentary, “To help Philadelphia students learn better, let’s start grading teachers,” is a prime example:     

“Unfortunately, that is why you have schools in which an all-star teacher is helping children learn and excel; next door, an incompetent teacher is protected by collective bargaining and is allowed to give kids an inferior education. We are told by their union that no difference exists. Tell that to the parents of kids stuck with the inferior teachers.”

Incompetent teacher right next door, protected by union tenure?  Sounds like someone needs to call the cliché police on Mr. Giordano, and quick.  The chances are the teacher in Giordano’s example doesn’t even exist, and if he does, the odds are that he’ll eventually be run out of his classroom by displeased parents, an angry principal, or the draining effects of disruptive students.    

Scrapping tenure isn’t going to improve the quality of America’s teachers, although it may do irreparable harm to our nation’s best educators.  Collective bargaining is simply no match for the Darwinian principle of Natural Selection.

School Choice is Twenty-First Century Segregation

by Christopher Paslay

Charter schools do not serve the neediest children—they weed them out.

Generally speaking, there are two ways to deal with a public school that is struggling to succeed.  One—you could provide that school with the proper supports, such as doing building renovations and repairs, upgrading materials, and investing in technology.  You could revamp curriculum to make it more individualized and authentic, treat teachers with respect and trust in their expertise, and expand alternative schools and programs to remediate troubled youth.  In other words, you could invest in families and communities, and create a culture of learning available to all children within the bounds of a neighborhood.

Or two—you could deem the school a failure and turn your back on it.  Throw up your hands and say, “This school isn’t worth saving.”  You could do so by pinning all the complex challenges facing students in struggling neighborhoods solely on “lousy” teachers and “good-for-naught” principals, opting to take your resources elsewhere and start over by building a brand new school.  Yes, you could funnel tax dollars away from the school you deemed “failing” and build a charter.  You could hire new teachers (although many would come from the same pool of “lousy” teachers whose schools were shut down), you could set-up your admissions process so only students with educated parents could navigate the paperwork, and you could throw out those children who don’t follow your rules and send them back to the “failing” neighborhood school to rot with the rest of the children who couldn’t get into your charter.         

You could deal with a struggling school by doing one of those two things.  Fighting the good fight, or turning and running away.  The school choice folks, those obsessed with charters, like to run.  It’s easier that way.  Finding alternative ways to educate America’s bottom third is no easy task.  America’s bottom third is quite the pain in the butt, to put it bluntly.  They are the ones with the family issues, and the health issues, and the addition problems.  They’ve been exposed to domestic violence and often can’t manage their anger or peacefully solve problems.  And charters, which have limited space and stricter rules, keep these students out.            

KIPP charters (Knowledge Is Power Program) are a prime example.  Touted as working wonders for poor and minority children, KIPP schools are indeed achieving good results on standardized tests.  However, because KIPP schools have extended school days and hold classes on weekends, the student turnover rate is extremely high for Black males—over 40 percent dropout between grades 6 – 8.  In addition, KIPP is criticized for not serving more English Language Learners and students with disabilities.

The real kicker is that despite the added advantage of weeding out struggling students, as a whole, charters still aren’t performing any better than traditional public schools.  The CREDO study proves this reality point blank, as does the fact that in Philadelphia, only 54.7 percent of charters are making AYP under the No Child Left Behind guidelines.

This is most likely due to the fact that up to 60 percent of student achievement is based on nonschool factors.  Noted education historian Diane Ravitch wrote about this reality in a review of the film Waiting for Superman that she published in The New York Review of Books:  

“. . . teacher quality accounts for about 7.5–10 percent of student test score gains. Several other high-quality analyses echo this finding, and while estimates vary a bit, there is a relative consensus: teachers statistically account for around 10–20 percent of achievement outcomes. Teachers are the most important factor within schools.

But the same body of research shows that nonschool factors matter even more than teachers. According to University of Washington economist Dan Goldhaber, about 60 percent of achievement is explained by nonschool factors, such as family income.”

So while the quality of a teacher and school are important, if the educational issues stemming from nonschool variables aren’t properly addressed—and most charters do not address them—academic progress and student achievement will be limited.               

Tragically, school choice isn’t doing much to improve achievement.  It is, however, giving parents a legal means of separating their children from the unwanted bottom third, and allowing school reformers and entrepreneurs to turn a profit at the expense of the poor and disenfranchised.

To Mayor Nutter: What happened to stopping contracts with outside managers?

by Christopher Paslay

 

“As Mayor, I will call for a reduction in contracts with outside contractors unless there is a compelling educational purpose for renewing the contract.”

 

Mayor Michael Nutter, Putting Children First

 

In an educational reform plan dubbed Imagine 2014, Philadelphia schools’ chief Arlene Ackerman announced her intention to shut-down 35 of the city’s lowest-performing schools and reopen them as charters or schools run by outside management.

 

Although I agree that the District’s failing schools need additional help and resources, I don’t believe the answer rests with outside contractors.  Studies show that educational management organizations (EMOs) such as Edison Schools, Foundations Inc., Victory Schools, and Universal Companies are not producing results.  In 2007, Research for Action, a nonprofit organization working in educational research and reform, conducted a survey on the private managers.  The report stated: “We find little evidence in terms of academic outcomes that would support the additional resources for the private managers.”

The Bulletin wrote an article based on these findings as well.   In it they concluded, “EMOs receive an additional $18 million per year, approximately $768 more per pupil, to run their schools with no measurable difference in test results.”     

 

But Dr. Ackerman assures us this time around things will be different.  Only successful organizations with proven track records will be given opportunities to run Philadelphia’s failing schools.

 

One organization Dr. Ackerman touted was the Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP).  KIPP schools are praised around the country for high student achievement, especially with minorities in high poverty areas. 

 

However, KIPP schools are not always what they seem.  A three year study by SRI International, a Menlo Park, CA-based research institute, found that many KIPP schools have an alarmingly high rate of student attrition, which in some cities was as high as 60%.  The same trend was true for teachers, who had a turnover rate of almost 50% in some districts. 

 

In other words, the time and energy required to work or attend a KIPP school is overwhelming for many adults and children alike; at KIPP, the school day begins at 7:30 and runs until 5:00, and classes are held every other Saturday.

 

So the question remains: How are we going to staff these schools?  Also, what do we do with the high number of students who transfer out of KIPP schools because the work load is too difficult?          

 

As Mayor Nutter announced in his education plan outside Samuel Powel School in the fall of 2007, “We know that contracting out to the education management organizations—the EMOs—are not producing results that are any better than many of our regular public schools. So instead of allowing consultants to profit, we should return some of the consultant money to the classroom.”

 

Amen.

 

So what are the solutions?  How do we save the District’s lowest-performing schools? 

 

By not shutting them down or giving up on them.  By investing in HOLISTIC education, and funding programs that help struggling parents and neighborhoods gain some stability.  By not only holding principals and teachers accountable, but also parents and the students themselves.  By actually ENFORCING the District’s policy on zero tolerance for violence—going into unruly schools and systematically weeding-out the bad apples—permanently removing the students who are ruining everyone’s educations. 

 

Outside management is not the answer for Philadelphia’s failing schools.  The research proves this, and the Mayor himself has acknowledged this reality.  My only question is, when will Michael Nutter step in and challenge Dr. Ackerman’s new reform plan?  When will he fulfill his campaign promise and stop contracts with outside managers?