Looking at the Data – It isn’t about Average Experience
If you’ve been following the work of the Education Trust-West, you know that too many of California’s students in poverty and students of color attend persistently underperforming schools, contributing to the achievement gaps that separate students in poverty and students of color from their peers. You’ve seen the data showing that our brown and black students do not have equitable access to highly effective teachers, which research shows is the most important in-school factor influencing student achievement.
If you look at what happened in the LA schools that were the subject of the ACLU lawsuit, it’s pretty clear “last-in, first-out” seniority-based teacher layoffs make these problems even worse. Our neediest students and school communities get the brunt of school district layoffs when they happen. Not only is this not an equitable situation, it is an unequal one – raising the issue of serious civil rights violations.
Knowing this, the next question we must answer is how do we protect our students from the disproportionate impact of teacher layoffs and create the conditions for ongoing improvement in the student performance, particularly in tough budget times. I believe that there is only one way – making sure that our highest need students are taught by the best teachers and that we protect effective teachers in times of budget crisis regardless of their seniority.
In my previous blog entry, I expressed the fervent hope that the ACLU lawsuit would lead to a system where we prioritized effective teachers, protected effective teachers and created the conditions where we distributed effective teachers on an equitable basis. At the Ed Trust-West, we have been looking at the data on teacher distribution and the research on effectiveness and two things are clear to us. The first is that problem of performance is our high need schools is not related to the average experience of their teaching staffs. On average, lower-performing schools in California do not have a dramatically less-experienced teaching staff. Even without explicit state law in place, the average years of experience of teachers in a school does not vary much between low-performing schools and higher-performing schools statewide. Indeed, even in the most struggling schools, the average years of teacher experience is over 10 years statewide. Averages hide the real stories of inequitable distribution of teachers. What the data does show is that lower-performing schools have higher proportions of new, untenured staffs than other schools. This reality is hidden when only averages are evaluated. Averages can also hide evidence of things like, for example, a bimodal distribution of teachers. In these cases, a low-performing school could have predominantly very new and very senior teachers, while still maintaining an average equivalent to the rest of the district. It is not surprising that teacher effectiveness research from other states identifies these two periods of a teacher’s career (the beginning and the end) as when teachers are the least effective at producing positive outcomes for their students.
As a result, a solution to the layoff problem that prioritizes averaging years of service for schools is both unnecessary and counterproductive. Our highest need schools could continue to have their staffs decapitated of their less senior teachers without changing the average years of service. And from an instructional level, they could actually suffer. But if we could construct a system that guaranteed they could keep their best teachers, regardless of seniority; if we looked to ensure they had teachers in the districts highest band of teacher quality and could keep those teachers, regardless of budget crisis, imagine how quickly the lives of their students would change.
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