|Huck/Konopacki Labor Cartoons|
Riding the wave of hysteria about our dysfunctional schools and incompetent teachers, Stand for Children (S4C) Massachusetts has acquired enough signatures to get an initiative on the November ballot that would make evaluations more important than seniority in layoff and transfer decisions.
S4C says that polls it commissioned in 2011 indicated 85% approval for their initiative, according to South Coast Today. "People inherently get it," said Jason Williams, director of the MA branch of S4C.
What they “get,” however, is not readily apparent. Williams thinks that his initiative will help increase involvement by skeptical or uninvolved parents at low income schools. This is delusional at best. Lack of involvement by low income parents has little to do with how teachers are evaluated, and a lot to do with parents’ social status. Many are working two or three jobs to make ends meet or are working during the afternoons and evenings and are thus unable to make after school meetings, fundraisers or open houses. Some do not feel comfortable or confident navigating middle class institutions like public schools. More importantly, while greater parental involvement is generally considered good for schools, it alone cannot turn low performing schools around or erase the effects of living in poverty.
Williams also evoked the oft-repeated mantra that seniority has caused the state's teacher of the year to be laid off because another teacher had more seniority. However, if Williams and other “reformers” really want to keep excellent teachers in the classrooms, they should be fighting for higher taxes, especially on the wealthy, so that districts could afford to hire and retain the best teachers and not have to lay off anyone. Furthermore, with sufficient funding, districts could offer more professional development to help all teachers become better at their craft, raising the quality of teaching for all students, not just those lucky enough to have teachers of the year.
It is also worth looking at what it takes to become a “teacher of the year”—a status typically not earned without going well beyond the call of duty and one’s contractual obligations. In other words, teachers of the year generally put in more unpaid volunteer time and labor than other teachers. Yet this is only necessary because it is impossible to accomplish all of our responsibilities within our contractual hours for which we are paid, let alone all the additional supports kids need. So why not fund schools sufficiently for teachers to be paid amply for their skill and commitment and to provide students with the services they need, rather than expecting bleeding heart martyrs to do it on a volunteer basis?
There is another significant problem with S4C’s initiative: Massachusetts is implementing a new evaluation system next year that has not yet been tested. The bugs have not been identified, let alone corrected. To base a teacher’s job and financial security on an untested system is premature and risky, particularly when there is no evidence that seniority has anything to do with the effectiveness of Massachusetts schools.