Proposals on teacher layoffs stiffly resisted

KENNEWICK -- Proposed legislation to change which teachers are laid off first in case of budget cuts has run into fierce opposition by groups representing just about anyone working in the school business.

The Kennewick School District is playing a part in the discussion of the bills' timing.

Two identical bills -- SB 5399 and HB 1609 -- were introduced in the state Senate and House this past week. They would direct school districts forced to trim faculty to first lay off teachers with the lowest evaluation rating.

Currently, such decisions are driven in large part -- but not entirely -- by seniority, which proponents of the bill said runs counter to keeping the most effective teachers.

A coalition of education advocates is lobbying for the proposals. The coalition includes 34 organizations, among them the League of Education Voters and the group Stand For Children.

Organizations against it include teacher and school employee unions and the three associations representing principals, administrators and school board members.

The Senate bill appears dead on arrival, but the House bill has moved to that chamber's education committee.

Inaction is unacceptable, one of the coalition members said. School budget cuts are certain to come and any resulting teacher lay-offs must sensibly be made.

"We have got to retain the most effective teachers," said Shannon Campion, state director of Stand For Children Washington.

Determining who has to go by seniority would be a "double hit to the kids," she said: There would be fewer teachers, and those who are let go would include some of the most effective teachers.

That claim is in part based on research by Dan Goldhaber, an economist at the University of Washington who heads the Center for Education Data and Research.

The coalition in support of the proposal cites a figure from Goldhaber's recent research in its news releases -- that laying off teachers based on seniority is the equivalent of cutting two to three months off the school year, compared to basing the decision on effectiveness.

Goldhaber compared so-called "value-added scores" for teachers who had received lay-off notices to those of their colleagues who didn't, he said.

Value-added scores are a statistical way of separating out how much effect a teacher has on students' scores in standardized tests. Since these tests are administered only for certain subjects in certain grades, only teachers in those classes became part of the research, Goldhaber said.

His research found 36 percent of the teachers who received lay-off notices were more effective than the average teacher who had not.

"The seniority-driven system is clearly not going to be the most effective system if the bottom line is student achievement," Goldhaber said.

But there's a "really big caveat" to be considered in his results, he said.

"Value-added is just one way of measuring teachers," he said. "Teachers do a lot of things (not measured in) a student's test scores."

Another problem with the coalition's use of Goldhaber's exact figures is that the bill would require districts to use evaluation scores, not value-added scores.

Evaluations -- determined by a principal observing the teacher at work -- still are a measure of effectiveness and therefore a better tool than seniority, he said.

There's no guarantee that measured benefits of an evaluation-based system would be as high as his results.

And the bills' opponents say the current evaluation system definitely shouldn't be used to choose who goes and who stays. They say the legislation at least should be on hold until 2012, when a new evaluation system will be in place.

"We think this effort is premature," said Dan Steele, director of government relations for the Washington Association of School Administrators. "The timing is just off."

For the past eight months, pilot projects around the state have worked out new evaluation methods. Kennewick is one of eight districts -- and a consortium of districts around Spokane -- in the pilot program.

Under the old system, principals in Kennewick formally observe their teachers two to three times a year, said Assistant Superintendent Beverly Johnson-Torelli.

They hand in an evaluation in May on which they have marked up categories including classroom management, instructional skill and academic knowledge.

Teachers are judged to be either satisfactory or unsatisfactory in each of the categories.

But Johnson-Torelli said that's not detailed enough to be a basis for lay-off decisions. It also leaves a lot of room for a principal's subjective assessments.

The new model in progress in Kennewick has more -- and different -- categories by which to evaluate teachers, and principals can give four possible grades.

The other pilot districts are trying different models. All of the districts will meet later this month to compare notes, and they will hand in a final report in July.

In fall 2012, every district in the state will start school under a new evaluation model that is bound to consider student achievement. That's the earliest a bill like this should be considered, said the chairwoman of the Senate K-12 education committee.

"Once we have a valid evaluation system, we should use it to make sure teachers are of the highest quality," said Sen. Rosemary McAuliffe, D-Bothell.

Her committee will not hear SB 5399 this session, she said.

But the teachers' union doesn't think evaluations should be used in lay-off decisions, even with a new system in place.

"The new system is intended to give teachers input so they can be the best teachers for students -- not as the basis for lay-offs," said Rich Wood, spokesman for the Washington Education Association.

Proponents of the bill disagree. Evaluations without consequences won't improve anything, they say.

"Evaluations are only useful when real stakes are attached to them," Campion said.

* Jacques Von Lunen: 509-582-1402; jvonlunen@tricityherald.com