Guest columnists Christopher Eide and Kirby Green write that to best serve students, effective educators must be protected from being laid off when budget cuts are made by rethinking the practice of "last in, first out." In other words, factors other than seniority should be considered in layoff decisions.
Recently, two teachers from South Seattle drove down to Olympia on a school night to testify against a long-standing labor-union policy in Washington. The policy under scrutiny, commonly referred to as “last in, first out,” has been adversely affecting students in Washington for far too long. “As adults, oftentimes we lose sight of what is most important … our kids,” one teacher testified.
Whether to restructure this policy and build up our ability to identify effective educators is a decision currently in front of Washington legislators.
As teachers, our primary goal is to ensure that we put our students on a track to ultimately graduate high school ready for college or their career. We want all students to go on to earn a living wage and be productive members of our state.
But in Washington, more than 16,000 kids drop out of high school every year. More than half of low-income students and students of color are not reading at grade level. We are 43rd in the nation in terms of college participation for low-income students. Clearly, we are missing the mark, and our most at-risk kids suffer disproportionally.
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These statistics highlight the fact that we need to provide the most effective learning environments for all students, especially our underserved ones. One change we can make is to protect our most effective educators from being laid off when budget cuts are made.
The current practice in Washington is that if teachers must be cut, the newer teachers go first, regardless of how effective they are. Hence, “last in, first out.”
Research shows this policy to be unfair to students, in particular to low-income and minority students. The National Center for Education Statistics reports that schools with the highest percentage of low-income and minority students employ almost twice as many teachers with fewer than three years of experience as higher-income and lower-minority schools.
In addition, a 2011 study by the University of Washington’s Dan Goldhaber showed that moving to a layoff system that considers teacher effectiveness could gain students 2.5 to 3.5 months of learning on average.
“A school of effective teachers is what our students need, regardless of whether they have taught two or 20 years. When we tell students that we couldn’t keep the teacher they learned the most from, that’s not fair,” the other teacher testified.
Many teachers agree. A recent national survey of 9,000 teachers in two large urban-school districts by The New Teacher Project found that nearly three out of four said that factors other than seniority should be considered in layoff decisions.
In order to move in that direction, we need to be able to identify effective teachers. Fortunately, the new teacher- and principal-evaluation system that’s being piloted in Washington will help us do this. Under the new system, principals evaluate the effectiveness of teachers in a variety of domains.
However, the effectiveness of these evaluations rests only on the ability of the evaluators. Most teachers agree that a fair assessment of their effectiveness must include multiple measures, such as peer and student evaluations, parent feedback and student growth.
The results of these improved evaluations have a variety of potential uses that are good for students and teachers — for example, flexibility for our lowest-performing schools to incentivize and hire proven effective teachers. More information will also help principals make better staffing decisions when teachers change schools.
We are interested in being treated like professionals. To achieve this, we must hold ourselves and our colleagues to the highest standard by making sure every child in every classroom gets the education they need and deserve.
Ensuring that the most effective teachers are protected and acknowledged will improve outcomes for all of our students and lead to a brighter future for our state.
Christopher Eide, left, is the executive director of Teachers United; Kirby Green is a fourth-grade teacher in the Seattle Public Schools.