Wednesday, June 24, 2015

PA: Shredding Seniority

The PA House of Representatives has passed HB 805, a bill intended to blow a hole in seniority protections in Pennsylvania. Currently, we are one of the remaining states where furloughs must be done in Last In First Out style. If this bill passes the PA Senate, we will no longer be one of those states.

What Does the Bill Say?

If you want to look at the full text, you can find it here. It's a tough go, and I can't promise you that I didn't miss something in my perusal. But there are two portions that are getting the most attention.

First, we want to increase the amount of pre-tenure service time. Currently PA makes you wait three years for job protections to kick in; the bill would up that to four, with an optional fifth if your administration is feeling kind of iffy about you.

Second, we want to fold our teacher evaluations into furlough decisions. A teacher with a low rating would be the first to go, regardless of years of service.

Those are the headlines.

Full Disclosure

This issue is not purely abstract for me. My wife has just been furloughed by her school district because they are trying to slice of chunks of their budgetary costs with a big, ugly chain saw. Teachers were let go, and since she is at the beginning of her career. Which sucks, because she is damn good.

So when we're talking about these great young teachers whose careers get unjustly whacked with the furlough ax, that is not a hypothetical thing to me. That's my wife.

Whose Bright Idea Is This?

This bill has been kicking around for a while. Here you can see a letter written by the bill's chief sponsor, Rep. Stephen Bloom, back in February. It contains several fine slices of baloney, including this statistic thrown out without any references:

Research demonstrates that under a seniority-based layoff system, the more effective teacher is dismissed roughly four out of five times. 

What research? How is it demonstrated? And why haven't we heard about this before like, say, during the Vergara trial's work of destroying tenure and seniority in California? Those guys were clearly willing to bring up anything they could think of to make their point-- but I don't believe they mentioned this. So I kind of suspect this is not an entirely fact-based statement.

Fun Trivia

Pennsylvania has the largest full-time legislature in the country (New Hampshire's is larger, but those folks are essentially part-time volunteers). There are 253 members (203 representatives, 50 senators) who start with a base pay of $85,356 (that pay is a tetchy subject in PA-- the legislators once voted themselves a pay raise at 2 AM with no discussion).

How do they keep things organized with so many legislators jostling for position? Why, just like most legislatures-- members earn privileges with seniority. Go figure.

Why This Isn't Going To Do Much of Anything

Will this legislation trigger a teacherly thunderdome? Well, not right away.

Pennsylvania's teacher evaluation system only offers four ratings. Crappy, Getting Better, Pretty Okay, and Super Duper. That's it. The new law says that Crappy teachers must be thrown overboard first, and Super Duper teachers can never be thrown overboard. But if, for instance, everybody in the department getting axed is rated Pretty Okay, then furloughs will be decided  by seniority.

Other News in Teacher Evaluations

PA just used its shiny new evaluation system for the first time. How'd that turn out?

98.2% of PA teachers were rated Pretty Good or Super Duper-- the highest percentage ever.

The total number of teachers rated unsatisfactory in all the public schools in Pennsylvania-- 289. In charter schools-- 803.

So once again, the reformster myth that our schools are choking on vast supplies of terrible teachers takes a hit.

So Who Will Be Affected?

So those 289 teachers could be in trouble under the new system. And we could get some struggles between the Pretty Okay and Super Duper teachers.

But huge differences within schools will not necessarily emerge.

See, in PA, we have a School Performance Profile which is mostly a result of test scores (through both VAMmy and straight-up methods). But it's applied to everybody in the school who does not teach a tested subject.

So elementary teachers will be at the mercy of crappy VAMified test scores. Middle and high school teachers mostly don't teach tested classes, so most of those staffs will have the exact same SPP score as each other, so that any significant differences will come from SOP's (our version of the do-it-yourself performance goals)-- and nobody knows how those work yet.

But mostly, as we've seen with the latest results, most folks are going to have the same Pretty Good rating, and we'll be right back to seniority as the deciding factor again. At least until some legislator gets the bright idea of using a scale with more than four stops.


Essentially, this bill wouldn't really do anything-- except slap PA teachers in the collective face, and set the stage for future abuses.

So if the legislature wanted to do something really useful, they could try funding schools.

PA schools are dropping like flies, and it seems likely that this year's bloodbath may bring PA close to the 30,000 teaching jobs lost mark for the past several years (there's a great deal of disagreement about that number).

Public school budget cuts in PA are directly due to two simple factors-

1) A pension system that the state has avoided funding properly, instead kicking that can down the road. We are now at a dead end, and the legislature has required local schools to pay for their screw-up.

2) A cyber charter reimbursement plan that bleeds local schools dry.

Both of these factors trace their origins straight back to Harrisburg. If the legislature is so concerned about great teachers losing their jobs (and if they even wanted to care, a little, about community schools being closed), then they might make a serious attempt to fund public schools properly. Right now only the new governor is making much noise about that, and our GOP legislature is busy finding ways to tell him no.

The Great Reformster Onslaught

PA reformsters have had huge success in getting people not to ask why the state is doing such a crappy job of funding public education. Instead, we have legislators pushing ways to further shut down public education, hand schools over to charters, and generally stick it to public ed.

This bill is part of that. We already have the numbers to tell us how many terrible teachers there are in PA public schools, and the answer is Very Few-- even using a system that is rigged to "find" as many terrible teachers as possible, despite the fact that VAASS (PA's version of VAM) has been widely debunked. Plus you can throw in all the stories of great teachers who got crappy ratings as well.

This is a bad bill, and it should die a lonely death. But part of its badness is that it is completely beside the point and will allow reformsters to jump up and down and hold a pep rally while not effectively doing much of anything. True, it will set the stage for far uglier things down the road, and that's one more reason it should die.

But it is also a sign of how clueless and intellectually dishonest this whole reformy exercise is in the first place. And its worst result is that it encourages the legislature to talk about everything except what they need to be doing to actually strengthen public education in Pennsylvania.


  1. Coming from post secondary eduction, the idea that job protection kicks in at four years (I am guessing at about 25 years of age for teachers that come directly from an undergraduate program) does not seem obviously crazy. In research oriented post secondary education, tenure is granted after six years at an institution, following what is typically six years of post graduate study (you might have to add 3-6 years of post doctorate work in the natural sciences). This would mean that job protection in postgraduate education is granted in the early to mid thirties, about a decade after it is given in PA.

    I think there is a good deal of merit to using a defined contribution retirement system over a defined benefit system. Teachers who leave before vesting would still get the benefit of payments on their behalf, the people negotiating the agreements would be the ones to be responsible for paying for the agreements. It does shift some risk from the local government to the individual teacher, but that is arguably a good price to pay to improve the viability of the system (and reduce wage theft from teachers who do not vest in the system).

  2. I think you need to look at the charter school vs public school unsatisfactory numbers again. The way I am reading the table charter schools had a .015% unsatisfactory and public schools had a .0017% unsatisfactory.

    The 803 vs 289 looks like a 2012-2013 vs 2013-2014 comparison.