Last-in, first-out teacher layoff system can be changed this year

(Alex Johnston is chief executive officer of the school reform organization ConnCAN.)

Gov. Malloy reassured many folks by promising not to cut state education funding, but many districts will still have to cut spending. Over the past couple of years, a number of districts have plugged budget holes with special funds, received directly from the federal government, that are now gone, and costs go up every year. The hard and inevitable truth is that teachers – hundreds or even thousands of them across the state – will be laid off this year.

There’s no question that teacher layoffs are devastating for everyone involved, but they are made worse when they are based on a policy that defies common sense. In most Connecticut districts, teacher seniority is the primary, and in many cases the sole factor that can be used in determining which teachers will be subject to budget-driven layoffs. Hartford’s contract even goes so far as to use the last four digits of teachers’ social security numbers as the tie-breaker for those with the same hire date. These last-in, first-out policies undermine the very notion of teachers’ professionalism, and ignore the fact that teaching talent is simply not distributed on the basis of seniority. Teachers are unique individuals with unique abilities to contribute to student learning, no matter how long they’ve been on the job.

We all know that there are many newer teachers who are fantastic and who deliver incredible results for their students–and there are longer-serving teachers who don’t. Seniority just isn’t a good predictor of teacher performance, and it’s not in kids’ best interest to keep using it as the determining factor in teacher layoffs. Connecticut can do better than last-in, first-out layoffs, and we can do it this year.

Many are skeptical about eliminating last-in, first-out layoffs, and believe we don’t have a better option right now than sticking with seniority. They say that without a good evaluation system, seniority is the fairest way to differentiate among teachers; that in these tough times, veteran teachers could be targeted for their higher salaries; or that biased administrators might arbitrarily dismiss teachers they don’t like if seniority-based protections aren’t in place.

These concerns are valid, but they can be addressed even in a short-term fix. More importantly, they underscore the dire need for a rigorous evaluation system in every district that all parties have bought into, like the one in New Haven. But Connecticut hasn’t had the leadership at the state level to make that happen yet, so we’re now faced with the situation at hand: unprecedented teacher layoffs, with no plan to consider anything other than teachers’ hours logged on the job to determine who stays and who goes.

The truth is, there are a lot of objective measures beyond seniority that we could incorporate into these decisions this year. How about considering a teacher’s specialized training in a certain program or teaching method? How about identifying teachers who are chronically absent without a legitimate cause? How about looking at the teachers who have consistently been rated incompetent under districts’ existing evaluation systems? What about protecting “teachers of the year” and others recognized for extraordinary merit? Even school-based seniority, a modest improvement, would at least prevent the cross-district teacher bumping that disrupts student learning and disproportionately affects schools where the kids are already the farthest behind.

It’s a total cop out to say we can’t do better than only using seniority this year.

Let’s be clear. This is not about taking due process away from teachers, or even about eliminating seniority as a consideration. It’s about saying we’re smart enough to make sure unprecedented numbers of layoffs don’t happen based on a primary measure that in itself says little to nothing about what a teacher is contributing in the classroom. These steps need to be taken in tandem with assurances that veteran teachers’ seniority on the pay scale won’t be used against them, and that principals will have to document their rationale in all decisions, just as managers in other professions have to do in case of layoffs.

It’s up to our state leaders to make the right choice for kids and teachers this year: we know that without such leadership, change will be nearly impossible at the local level. Fundamentally, it’s up to the legislature’s Education Committee to propose a fix, which they have not yet done. Connecticut needs a meaningful solution to last-in, first-out layoffs this year. It’s the right thing to do.

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