"A child's learning is the function more of the characteristics of his classmates than those of the teacher." James Coleman, 1972

Sunday, December 05, 2010

Seniority and teacher layoffs: A red herring

Seniority and teacher layoffs: A red herring

The LA Times joins the current trend of discounting seniority in teacher evaluation and, of course, in laying off teachers ("When layoffs come to L.A. schools, performance doesn't count," December 5).

Their example shows the opposite.

The Times presents the case of teachers who had been at a school for two years, were apparently successful (at raising test scores), and were dumped in favor of teachers unfamiliar with the situation, resulting, according to the Times, in a disastrous decline in academic performance and student behavior.
But this is an argument for experience, otherwise known as seniority, not against it. 

The Times also quotes one teacher who protests the laying off of new teachers because it "would destroy not only these new teachers but also the community and the relationships they had built with the students."
Again, this is an argument for retaining experienced teachers, the ones who have built relationships with the community and students over many years. 

Seniority and performance
The Times mentions, in passing, that "seniority is largely unrelated to performance." The research on the impact of seniority that I have seen is based on the use of standardized test score improvements, otherwise known as value-added measures. Nevertheless, the results are interesting. In an interview (The New Advocate, "Teacher seniority under fire "September 12, 2010), researcher Michael Hansen said that improvement between year 3 and 25 was four percent, which he regarded as "trivial." But if valid, it means that more experienced teachers are slightly more effective. The only reason to ignore seniority as a criterion for retention in hard times is financial.
Hansen also pointed out that "This trend is actually common to most professional fields." The obvious implication is that if seniority is to be abandoned in retaining teachers, it should be out the window everywhere, based on quantitative evaluations similar to value-added, including writing newspaper articles. 

The value-added "debate"
The Times also commented minimally on the use of value-added testing, mentioning only that "The approach is controversial because test scores alone are an imperfect measure of a teacher. Unions and some experts say it generates flawed results and encourages instructors to 'teach to the test'." This is only a tiny concession to the substantial amount of research questioning the use of value-added evaluations. The Times defends their use of value-added not by refuting the research but only by stating that the Obama administration and many districts use it. 

This is not a response. Remember when you told your mom that all the other kids were doing x, so why couldn't you? Remember her response? If all the other kids decided to jump off a bridge, would you?

The Times managed to take a swipe at other means of evaluating teachers: Value-added, the Times claims, is "one way of bringing objectivity to otherwise subjective evaluations — usually based on brief and infrequent observations by administrators." This may or may not be true: The Times does not mention any studies on the duration or frequency of administrator observations. Or, of course, on their effectiveness.

A red herring
Finally, there is no discussion of the major question: Why are any layoffs necessary? Why are schools short of money while the Department of Education spends billions for the creation of unnecessary new tests (far more than we have ever seen before)? The entire discussion of who should be laid off and who not is a gigantic red herring, diverting us from the real issue.

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