Saturday, December 5, 2015

PA: Tenure Attack Renewed

And while the latest round budget attempts was stirring up dust, that's about as much attention as anyone was paying this week when the Pennsylvania Senate Education committee sent this direct assault on seniority in Pennsylvania back out into the world.

I last wrote about this bill back at the end of June after the PA House passed. You can skip back and see what I said back then, but here are the highlights.

The bill takes aim at two main portions of the laws regarding teacher employment-- temporary (pre-tenure) teachers, and the business of getting rid of a teacher. As I said in June, there is a large-ish amount of strike-out and new language in this, and you are encouraged to go sift through the whole thing yourself. I've read it, but you probably ought to, too.

The Small Potatoes

Pre-tenure employment used to be two years. More recently it was upped to three years. The new bill says that temporary teachers become professional employees after completing their third year. Yes, I know what I said and read before (four years), but I'm looking at the proposed language and it says that for anybody hired after June 30, 2015, "Whose work has been certified by the district superintendent to the secretary of the school district during the last four (4) months of the third year of such service ... as being satisfactory shall thereafter be a 'professional employe' within the meaning of this article."

However, the superintendent may extend that for a fourth year of temp-ness if it somehow seems that there's something to be learned about the temp teacher in a fourth year.

The Big Enchilada

The more serious issues with the bill are in the section dealing with getting rid of teachers, specifically the Why and the Who.

The bill adds another reason to jettison a teacher. The old standards were declining enrollment, cut programs, combined schools, and combined districts. Now add to that "economic reasons."

Let that sink in. It would be okay in Pennsylvania to cut teaching positions, even if everyone knows and acknowledges that such cuts are not educationally defensible. Let's also note that, given the ongoing huge problems that come with Pennsylvania's school funding system (called the most inequitable in the country) and that fact that today marks the 158th day late for our budget (supposed a deal has just been struck, but I'll believe it when I see it), the list of school district suffering economic distress in Pennsylvania includes pretty much all of them.

Now for the who.

Pennsylvania currently operates with the traditional First In Last Out system. This bill will end that. When teachers are let go, under this bill, such decisions must first consider teacher ratings from evaluations.

The bill proposes using the most blunt-instrument form of the evaluation. IOW, rather than tossing teachers based on, say, a five point difference in evaluation scores, only the category is considered. PA only has four -- crappy, needs work, pretty okay, and super-awesome. So if teachers must go, the crappy ones go first, then the needs work group, and so on. Within the groups, we revert to FILO. Also, callbacks work the same way, in reverse.

There are some fine details to go with this. The district can't suspend anybody with a super-awesome rating for economic reasons. And you are generally well-protected if two of your last three annual ratings are super-awesome (though nobody is supposed to get super-awesome ratings regularly-- we "live" in pretty good and only "visit" super-awesome). If you dump teachers because of enrollment shrinkage, you must dump an equal percentage of administrators (unless you only have five, or you get a special note from Harrisburg, etc etc).

Oh, and the bill expressly forbids districts from dumping teachers because they make too much money, which practically speaking means that districts are expressly forbidden to say out loud that's what they're doing.

Baldfaced Baloney

Practically speaking, this is a bill that reflects the baldfaced foolishness of groups like StudentsFirst. It starts with the presumption that districts are harboring large groups of terrible crappy teachers, either because principals weren't doing their jobs during the teacher pre-tenure temp period, or because awesome teachers are being thrown into the street while crappy ones keep their jobs. And as always, it rests on the fiction that administrators lack the power to get rid of teachers who can't do their jobs, and so those teachers are still there in the classroom.

It's worth noting that the folks pushing this bill have failed to come up with compelling tales of excellent teachers thrown into the street. The bill's sponsor, when he first started pushing this, resorted to a letter filled with made-up faux statistics. I'm just going to cut and paste from my earlier piece:

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.

Who will be affected? 

In fact, the last round of teacher evaluations found that 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.

Why do we care, anyway? 

This is a foot-in-the-door bill, a bill that throws out the idea of tenure and seniority and resets the whole teacher employment model around a teacher's ability to get good test scores out of her students. Because remember-- teacher evaluations are based on one chunk test scores, one chunk school rating (which are 90% test scores), and small chunk of things over which a teacher has no control.

At the moment, this may seem like a not-big-deal; after all, it draws a target mainly on 289 public school teachers. But just imagine what would happen if legislators later say, "This isn't accurate enough. Instead of basic rating, let's set job security based on each teacher's precise rating score."

At that point we get Teacher Thunderdome, and that's not just a problem for teachers. It's a problem for schools. When teachers must compete for every small numerical advantage for job security, teachers will face a real dilemma-- share a teaching strategy that will help students, or hold onto it so that you have better odds of being able to feed your own family?

And for tough schools, underfunded schools, troubled schools, the very schools that we all want to see improved filled with the students have been most underserved and neglected-- how do you recruit a teacher to a school where it's so hard to get the numbers she needs to keep her career alive?

So if you're in Pennsylvania, it's time to email your Senator to suggest that HB 805 is a bad bill that should die a quiet death. Granted, he's probably busy not getting a budget passed and doing terrible things to our pension at the same time (but that's another story). Still, it would be huge bad news if this bill somehow slipped through during the larger drama. This does not "protect excellent teachers." It just attacks the profession, forcing teachers to treat their colleagues as enemies and their students as obstacles. This bill should never, ever become law.


  1. I think that tenure in post econdary education at least needs to be reformed. With the end of mandatory retirement, tenure has turned into a fifty year or more commitment by a college or university (typically tenure is granted when a faculty member is in their mid 30s, a little later for faculty in the natural sciences).

  2. Do you truly believe that 98% of teachers are pretty good or . If so, then administrators should get out of education and go make millions $ in the talent acquisition industry. It's been noted that 'Passing The Trash' is not limited to teachers moving horrible students on to be someone else's's also about administrators who tolerate poor teaching performance because it's easier than dealing with the HR and union headaches which come with trying to jettison the dysfunctional. Been there, seen that.

    And with research showing just15-20% of teachers engaged with their work, we'd be doing these underperforming one a favor by moving them out in order to find something more rewarding.

    Rather than lobby tooth and nail for the status quo, let's design a new talent management system for education which is flexible and gets talent where it can do the most good.

  3. Please cite the research showing only15-20% of teachers "engaged with their work."
    I am curious what the definition of "engaged with work" is in terms of the research.

    Please define "teaching talent." In my life I see the term "talent" used to describe a continuum from "the ability of a person to perform some task which has not been developed through the formal intercession of others such as coaches and teachers" to "a characteristic of a person who worked their butt off for decades developing a skill set and who is now accomplished enough to be perceived as somehow talented."