Editorial: Teacher effectiveness must be part of layoff process

by Don Heinzman

How teachers with tenure should be evaluated and laid off in a school system are hot topics at the Minnesota Legislature.

Republicans, who are in the majority in both houses, seem to favor a measure that would use test scores and teacher effectiveness along with seniority in terminating teachers.

Now, seniority (years of experience) is used as a major consideration in laying off teachers, or as is commonly known: last hired, first fired.

Education Minnesota, a union of 70,000 teachers, responds that 40 percent of the school district contracts now enable administrators to use criteria along with seniority to terminate teachers.

While teachers about to be dismissed are entitled to due process, it is false to say that principals do not have the power to get rid of bad teachers; they are reluctant to use it.

We have favored making it harder for teachers to get a license, which they must renew every five years.

This idea, suggested by Minnesota Education Commissioner Dr. Brenda Cassellius apparently isn’t on the Republican legislators’ law-making agenda.

By toughening licensure requirements, teachers would be more qualified to teach for another five years.

Those who favor watering down the seniority process claim it will get rid of the “bad” teachers, which they say seniority protects.

Once again there is no data that tells how many teachers are ineffective, only that there must be bad ones, because they can’t all be good.

The law now requires the definition of an effective teacher by which teachers must be measured.

This is in addition to the demand that teachers must have a college degree, they have to survive three years of probation and be licensed regularly.

All this emphasis on ineffective teachers overlooks the good record Minnesota education has compared with other states, with its higher college entrance exams and high graduation rates.

Proponents of changing the seniority system claim that culling the bad teachers would narrow the educational achievement gap between minority and white students.

It’s important to determine what the gap is and where it is. The achievement gap compares minority students with white students in urban poverty areas of Minneapolis, St. Paul and Duluth.

Those who have studied the data say students who live in poverty do not do as well in school as kids living with families above the poverty line.

The gap will only be significantly narrowed when policies at the local, state and federal levels are able to lift urban families out of poverty enabling their kids to do better in schools.

All that said, the public along with leading educators believe the time has come to change the law so that teacher effectiveness as well as seniority are considered when laying off teachers.

The tenure law has served teachers and students well by recognizing that experienced teachers generally become better instructors and should be protected from arbitrarily being laid off.

The time has come, however, when as in any profession, a teacher’s effectiveness along with the seniority should be considered in any lay-off decision.

Editor’s note: Don Heinzman is editorial writer for ECM Publishers Inc.