In 2004, Providence named a beloved biology teacher, John Wemple, Teacher of the Year. In the spring of that year, Amgen Corp. gave Wemple a $10,000 award for science teaching excellence. But shortly after, Providence laid him off from his job at Classical High. He’d been “bumped” by a teacher who had the right, thanks to state law, to displace a colleague with less seniority in the system. Wemple’s widely acknowledged merit counted for squat. A tony private school snapped him up.
The message to the kids is that the silly grownups can’t tell the difference between an excellent or indifferent teacher, or that they don’t care who teaches the kids. Forget science; seniority-driven school systems teach cynicism.
Last year at Times2 Academy, a district-charter school in Providence, 14 of the 18 elementary teachers were bumped out and replaced with teachers that the charter’s home district no longer needed because of declining enrollment. The time and resources spent on professional development, team-building and cultivating those bumped teachers just went down the tubes. Times2 leaders had to start all over again building the school’s culture. Devastating. And in the service of what?
“Bumping” is only one of several educationally pernicious personnel practices left over from the factory-model labor contracts that depress the quality of Rhode Island schools. Factory-model contracts treat teachers as interchangeable. It doesn’t matter whose hand is on the educational die press. What matters is their date of hire.
Most other states are further along in the process of professionalizing teachers. Rhode Island General Law 16-13-6 states that when the student population declines, teachers must be laid off “in the inverse order of their employment,” and rehired, when possible, according to their seniority in the system. Period. Merit is not an issue.
Last October in Providence, the East Side Parents Education Coalition hosted an education forum with the elected officials from the greater East Side. To everyone’s surprise the officials all came — from the state Senate, House and City Council. The conversation was temperate until the subject of bumping heated up the room. A parent recounted the John Wemple story, leading others to share their experiences of having some marvelous teacher yanked out of the classroom, often replaced by someone distinctly inferior.
Parents waxed so hot at the session that both Rep. Gordon Fox and Sen. Rhoda Perry agreed to submit legislation to end the practice of bumping.
However, the two bills appear to be languishing in the legislature, at least partly because neither offers a clean, clear solution.
I consulted the Business Education Partnership, the go-to people for understanding Rhode Island education’s labor contracts. They have four reports on the state’s teacher contracts that propose solutions to each of the problems they identify, including bumping. (Available at www.edpartnership.org)
For openers, BEP’s chief analyst, Lisa Blais, said, “There is no one bad guy here. There’s a culture of the way we do business that prevents us from getting what we need. Across the nation, districts complain that seniority does not work in the interests of the kids. Unions complain that administration doesn’t know what they’re doing. Both have a point. So our concept is to acknowledge fundamental practices like seniority and tenure, and to work with them instead of trying to bury them.”
To professionalize education personnel practices, Blais and her colleagues put the focus squarely on evaluation. Rhode Island is one of only a handful of states that do not mandate that teachers be evaluated. In fact, most Rhode Island teachers are never evaluated in any meaningful or helpful way.
Blais says the key to an effective and fair evaluation system is to use several different measures, instead of just one principal’s say-so. Evaluations should include objective, quantifiable information, such as student achievement, as well as administrator and peer observations. The resulting evaluations should place teachers at one of four levels: master, pre-master, basic and below basic.
With these categories in hand, teachers would no longer be interchangeable. Any teacher with two consecutive below-basic evaluations could be let go. (At last!) No basic teacher could bump a master, no matter how long he or she has been in the system. Only master teachers should be peer evaluators.
In other words, let’s develop standards that have teeth. The state’s official teacher standards are fine, but in practice they are treated as nice, ignorable guidelines and not as the foundations for rigorous evaluation. Distinguishing between the lazy and the committed, between the well-informed and the limited, between those who speak clear English and those who are poor communicators, would go a long way toward dismantling factory-model schools. This BEP recommendation is right on the money.
That said, however, developing evaluation systems takes time. In the meantime, Rhode Island could pass a very simple law stating that all teachers should be hired professionally — matched to the job via an interview and resumé or portfolio in hand — and that no teacher, however senior, is owed any job other than as a substitute teacher. If enrollment declines, the “excessed” teacher automatically becomes a substitute — until landing a more permanent position. That way the schools stay stable, and the teacher’s livelihood is intact. Yes, an “excessed” top-step teacher will be more expensive than regular subs. But that would be far less expensive than the wasteful havoc seniority and bumping are currently causing. If no school wants the “excessed” teacher for a permanent position, it shouldn’t be the kids, parents and school that suffer.
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