Teacher performance should count in layoffs

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When teachers have to be laid off in Pennsylvania’s public schools, it’s usually a cut-from-the-bottom process – those who are last into the building are usually the first to be ushered from it when the purse strings tighten.

But such an inflexible system is doing a disservice to students and taxpayers. While age and experience can be an asset in the classroom, youth, enthusiasm and a closer acquaintance with new ideas and innovations can be just as vital. Why should a district hang on to a less effective teacher huffing and puffing through the final lap of his or her career, while they are forced to jettison a younger educator who has demonstrated skill and shows great potential?

Several lawmakers in the state House have proposed nixing the use of seniority to determine who hangs on to their job and going instead with a checklist that would allow performance ratings to be part of the mix. This is the best way to determine that layoffs are handled fairly for all concerned.

The Pennsylvania State Education Association, the commonwealth’s largest teachers union, has cried foul, arguing that adopting performance-based layoffs would give school districts incentives to put thumbs on the scales and use subjective performance ratings as a way to get rid of instructors at the top of the pay scale. While we have some misgivings about standardized test scores being weighed too heavily when it comes to defining who is a star and who is not – there is only so much even the most gifted teacher can accomplish, after all, if their pupils come from disadvantaged backgrounds – other factors, including observations by peers and administrators of a teacher’s classroom performance, can and should be used in making that judgment. The proposal has the support of Pittsburgh Public Schools Superintendent Linda Lane, who said in a letter that layoff policies based on seniority “have taken highly effective educators away from students, and forced us to return ineffective teachers to classrooms.”

No one likes to see teachers lose their jobs. But, if some do, wouldn’t it be best that those least suited to the profession be the first to be removed from classrooms?

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