Seniority a poor measure of teacher's effectiveness

February 10, 2011 

If schools are forced to lay off teachers, the worst ones ought to go first.

Basing firing decisions on seniority -- a process that teacher unions and others are fighting to retain -- cheats our children out of their best chance for success.

It's wrong to saddle our children with a poor performer and toss out an excellent instructor just because one of them has logged more hours on the job.

Studies show that good teachers are crucial. The University of Washington's Center for Education Data and Research found that when teachers are laid off strictly on a seniority basis, it's the equivalent of closing school two to three months early.

But anyone who has ever attended school already knows the score. An excellent teacher can inspire and motivate the most disaffected child. A bad teacher can drive the love of learning from the most naturally curious kid.

Lawmakers in Olympia are considering legislation that would make the best interests of children a higher priority in layoff decisions.

It's backed by Excellent Schools Now, a coalition of more than 30 organizations that advocate for school reform. Members include the League of Education Voters, Partnership for Learning, Washington State PTA and Washington Roundtable.

But the legislation has yet to pick up much support from educators. Organizations representing teachers, administrators, principals and school board members have opposed the change.

They're out of touch with the taxpayers who provide their salaries.

A poll by the Partnership for Learning found that 81 percent of voters believe the Legislature should require school districts to base teacher layoffs on performance rather than seniority.

Some opponents argue that ongoing efforts to improve teacher evaluations ought to be completed before doing away with the seniority system.

The argument has some merit, but the state's budget crisis won't wait. Teacher layoffs will come before educators can put their house in order.

Flaws in the way teachers are evaluated ought to be fixed, but in the meantime, they shouldn't be used as an excuse to protect poor teachers from being the first to go.

Opponents worry that some teachers could be unfairly dismissed as a result of an evaluation that is biased or just poorly executed.

Safeguards already exist to protect teachers from prejudiced administrators. Perhaps protections for teachers ought to be strengthened.

But it's a given that any system will suffer from imperfections. Our children shouldn't have to pay the price while the worst performing teachers are protected.

The bill won't target very many teachers. Fortunately, most educators are dedicated professionals. More than a few qualify for sainthood, in our estimation.

But when teachers are rated either satisfactory or unsatisfactory, about 1-2 percent get the lower mark, according to the Widget Effect's project for teacher effectiveness.

That's an expectedly small percentage in a profession that attracts many outstanding individuals.

The system ought to weed out the ineffective, not protect them. Requiring school districts to base layoffs on teacher effectiveness, not seniority, is a start.

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