June 26 — 3:25 pm, 2015

Why ending seniority-based layoffs now is a bad idea

Pennsylvania’s education workforce has declined by more than 20,000 as a result of inadequate state funding and rising state mandates. A recent budget survey found that more than 40 percent of the state’s school districts plan further staff reductions in the 2015-16 fiscal year.

Rather than attack the core issue — that the state has one of the nation’s most inadequate and chaotic school funding systems — some Harrisburg legislators are fixated on a further hollowing-out of our public schools. 

Sponsored by State Rep. Stephen Bloom (R-Cumberland), House Bill 805, which passed the State House on a mainly party-line vote on Tuesday, would scrap longstanding policy that requires school districts to base furlough decisions on reverse order of teacher seniority. Instead, districts would be compelled to make personnel decisions based on teachers’ most recent performance evaluations.

Reasonable people can disagree about whether seniority alone should determine furlough decisions. It’s a different matter entirely to presume that Act 82, which established the state’s new teacher evaluation system, is ready to inform these high-stakes decisions.

Bloom’s legislation is likely to make a difficult situation worse by adding a new, untested mandate to the heap of policies weighing down school districts, exposing the Commonwealth and school districts to costly lawsuits, and unfairly jeopardizing the employment of even more public school teachers.

The most obvious shortcoming of the legislation is that it ignores the entirety of an educator’s career and would instead force districts to base determinations on a teacher’s “most-recent end-of-year performance rating.” This element of H.B. 805 violates a cardinal rule of the American Educational Research Association, which warns about the distorting influence of high-stakes measures, especially those that amount to a single elimination proposition.

A second concern relates to the new teacher evaluation system’s heavy reliance on student test data. There are important practical and technical considerations whenever high-stakes decisions are based primarily on student test data. Bloom’s bill takes these concerns a step further, because it depends on the state’s new, largely test-driven rating system, the School Performance Profile.

In this way, educators in Pennsylvania’s most vulnerable schools (who have been disproportionately impacted by furloughs and other staff reductions) are disadvantaged a second time. Research by Penn State’s College of Education and Research for Action has found that SPP ratings are so closely related to poverty levels and other out-of-school factors that they are not a reliable indicator of school performance.

Finally, under state law, teacher evaluation results are sorted into four categories (distinguished, proficient, needs improvement, and failing) to provide greater distinctions in performance than were possible under the state’s old binary “satisfactory/unsatisfactory” ratings. In the final calculation, these ratings depend on arbitrary cutoff scores for sorting teachers into each of the four categories. 

It is therefore doubtful that a meaningful difference in teacher performance separates the "needs improvement" educator who scored a 1.49 from the "proficient" colleague down the hall who scored a 1.5. A very small difference on any one element of the evaluation could have been the deciding factor. House Bill 805 ignores all of these concerns and requires that a district implementing furloughs lay off the 1.49 teacher before the 1.50 teacher — even if the building principal has good reason and evidence to believe that the score is invalid or not a true reflection of differences in skill or effectiveness.  

There’s simply no justification — from a research, policy, or good management perspective — to operate in this way.

It’s possible that as Pennsylvania continues to roll out its new teacher evaluation system, it will identify and address all of the challenges noted above.

But absent these assurances, Bloom’s bill places too great a weight on a still-evolving teacher-evaluation policy. It deviates from established practices in educational measurement and ignores the signal challenge confronting significant numbers of Pennsylvania school districts: wholly inadequate levels of state funding.


Adam Schott is a former executive director of the State Board of Education.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author.

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