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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.

RIFs, Grifters and Reality

Excessive teacher hiring invariably leads to layoffs; teachers need to understand this trap and protect themselves.

We are now in the midst of RIF season. In California and elsewhere, when the economy is unstable, Reduction in Force (RIF) notices must go out to teachers by March 15th. These notices apprise teachers that they may be out of a job come June. School districts don’t know in March what their budget will be for the next school year, so they typically plan for a worst case scenario. It’s almost unheard of that all teachers who get the notices actually get laid off, but some will, and teachers must be notified if there is any chance they will lose their jobs.

When the school districts send out the notices, the teachers unions angrily point fingers at the district, insisting that they cut the bureaucracy instead and suggest that taxes should be raised rather than cutting back teachers. What the districts and the unions don’t say is that they are the problem; they are complicit in the process whereby teachers lose their jobs.

In good economic times, school districts scream persistently that they need more teachers even if the district is losing students or enrollment is flat. They do this because flooding school systems with teachers means smaller class sizes, which they claim will translate to higher student achievement. But practically every study of class size and achievement shows absolutely no correlation between the two.

Teachers unions like having more members on the payroll simply because then the unions can fill their coffers with more dues money.

Of course, a few years later when the economy sours, these newly hired teachers are the ones to be let go. We are in that part of the cycle today.

A look at some numbers would be instructive here. According to the California state Ed Data website, in Los Angeles in 1998-1999 there were 33,847 teachers for 695,885 kids. By 2008-2009 the number of teachers swelled to 38,367 while the number of students declined to 687,534. So LA gained over 4,500 teachers while losing over 8,000 students. In New York City the numbers were more egregious. According to the Wall Street Journal, between 2000 and 2009 the city added 7,000 teachers while enrollment was down 63,000 students. And from teacher union watch dog Mike Antonucci, we learn that in Ohio from 2000-2008 the number of teachers increased by over 17% while the student population shrank by almost 7%.

Antonucci has been reporting about this phenomenon for years – in good financial times hiring is out of control because there is an assumption that the economy will be robust forever. He also points out that the higher expenses don’t end with teachers’ salaries and benefits. “Most school districts employ about two non-teachers for every three teachers. If you hire more teachers, you also typically have to hire more support employees.”

And it’s not just Los Angeles, New York and Ohio. The rest of the country goes through a similar dance on a regular basis, with equally disastrous results.

You’d think that the teachers unions who profess to really care about teachers would think twice before leading their members down the rosy path to RIFs. But then again, grifters are never concerned with needs of their prey. The more teachers on the payroll mean more money for the unions, period; money and power are their raison-d’etre.

It is high time that teachers start realizing that they are being scammed by people who do not have their best interests at heart. As the grifters are highly unlikely to change their ways, teachers need to do their homework and check the numbers. If it seems that teaching hires are increasing and student enrollment is flat or decreasing, it is probably not a great time to go into teaching.

About the author: Larry Sand 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.