Good Teachers: Beware The Ides of March
Julius Caesar came to a bad end on March 15th, the same date many good teachers were warned that they may be unemployed in June.
“Nearly 20,000 Teacher Pink Slips Statewide Show Drastic Need for More Education Funding” screamed the headline on the California Teachers Association website.
First, let’s straighten out the union spin. Typically when a person receives a “pink slip,” it means that they are fired. What some teachers actually received is a Reduction in Force (RIF) notice, which according to state law, must be sent to teachers by March 15th if there is the slightest chance that they will be laid off in June. School districts really don’t know in March what their budget will be for the next school year so they plan for the worst case scenario. It’s unheard of for all teachers who get the notices to actually be laid off, but some will, and they must be notified if there is any chance they will lose their jobs.
As a young teacher in New York City in 1975, I lost my 6th grade teaching position because the city was in the midst of a fiscal swoon. A few thousand of us were laid off because we were the newest hires, not because we were the worst teachers. The union contract did not make any provision for getting rid of the poorest performers, just the newly employed. Fast forward 37 years and we are still doing the same stupid thing.
In California, the state education code stipulates that seniority must be the determinant as to who gets the ax when times are tough. Last in, first out (LIFO) is the law of the land in California and is a terrible way to make staffing decisions. Teachers should be assessed on their merits, and if layoffs must happen, the poorest performers should go, just as in every other field.
How many bad teachers are there? (Please spare me the “teacher bashing” epithet; there are stinkers in every field – doctors, lawyers, accountants, etc. The difference is that if the latter continuously fail their clients, they will be forced out of their profession. But not teachers.) Former GE CEO Jack Welch said that the bottom 10 percent of any field should be replaced. I will use a more conservative number – let’s say that 5 percent of teachers are poor performers.
In California, there are about 300,000 teachers. If 5 percent of them aren’t fit to teach, that means we have 15,000 who should seek work elsewhere. If each of these teachers has 20 kids in a class, it means they are ruining the educational experience of 300,000 children a year. If a young student has two dogs in a row, in all likelihood they will never catch up, thus inflicting permanent damage. And a middle or high school teacher in the bottom 5 percent can do even more harm, as he or she may have 150 students per year.
Another thing to consider when laying off teachers is that by not limiting your choice to newest hires, not as many would have to be let go. That’s because the newest hires are always the lowest paid, thanks to the antiquated step and column pay scale that school districts use. This set-up rewards teachers for the number of years on the job, irrespective of their effectiveness.
The consequence of ridding schools of their lowest performing teachers can be transformative. According to Hoover Institution scholar Eric Hanushek, if we just got rid of the bottom performing 5 to 7 percent of teachers – a common practice in the private sector — our education system could rival that of Finland’s world class system.
Of course, common sense changes will be difficult to bring about in California due to the enormous power of CTA. Teachers unions care not a whit about teacher quality. They just want as many breathing, dues paying bodies in the classroom as possible.
Julius Caesar had good reason to fear March 15th. It is a crying shame that so many excellent teachers should have that same fear.
About the author: Larry Sand, a former classroom teacher, is the president of the non-profit California Teachers Empowerment Network – a non-partisan, non-political group dedicated to providing teachers with reliable and balanced information about professional affiliations and positions on educational issues.