A grown-up choice on teacher layoffs

Connecticut’s grown ups have an unprecedented opportunity this year to make decisions that will put our students’ needs first. Tightened budgets at the state and district levels have us all thinking: how can we be doing things better? Is there a way to approach these painful cuts that allows us to weigh potential reductions against one another and evaluate what makes the most sense for our students and our state?

The good news is, choices do exist, and we grown ups have the opportunity to act on them. One great example of a choice we can make is how we deal with the thousands of teacher layoffs that will happen as early as this spring.  Pink slips will go out starting this month, and if the reality hasn’t set in yet, it will soon.

Teacher layoffs are devastating, no matter how you cut it. But layoffs that treat teachers as interchangeable cogs, rather than as unique individuals with unique abilities to contribute to student learning, is an insult to education professionals and is harmful to youth.

The bad news is, time and time again, this is the path that adults in Connecticut have taken. Unless we see a sincere attempt by state leadership to fix things this year, the thousands of impending teacher layoffs will be based only on seniority – how long a teacher has been teaching. The number of years a teacher has on the job does not necessarily manifest in student outcomes.  There are great teachers at the beginning and end of their careers, and many in between, who are working hard get great results for kids. We can’t let seniority be the only factor in determining who stays and who goes, or we’ll lose new teachers who are doing amazing things for students.

The adults in our state Capitol are making a choice by not stepping up to prioritize student learning, and by choosing to ignore how destructive the last-in, first-out policy will turn out to be.  Last year Hartford had to swallow the disruption caused by the bumping of hundreds of teachers around the district in order to keep the total layoffs to a minimum and recently an arbitration panel shot down the district’s request for a better approach to deal with budget-driven layoffs. Hartford’s entire reform effort is premised on theme-based academies, which cultivate teachers and students dedicated to the particular focus of the school. When seniority-based layoffs hit the district, teachers will be moved around to different schools regardless of the specialized training they have to work in those schools.

Take Opportunity High School, a partnership between Our Piece of the Pie and Hartford Public Schools. Together, we have worked hard to recruit teachers who are dedicated to our school’s particular mission, and best suited to address the particular needs of our students, who are over-age and under-credited. If teachers from other schools bump out teachers in our school who have specialized training, we lose a critical investment that has been made to prepare our staff. More importantly, our students lose out on having teachers who have made an active commitment to our school’s model and to their specific needs. We need to recognize that different kinds of training have taken place outside of the traditional certification model that the contract reflects, and use that information to take a more nuanced approach to layoffs.

It’s time for our state leaders to provide districts with the relief that they need on last-in, first-out layoffs. It’s an opportunity we can’t afford to lose, and if we do, then shame on us for trading our children’s education for the comfort of the grown ups in the room.

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