The Madison School Board is expected to vote Monday on a controversial proposal that would minimize the importance of seniority in layoff and reassignment decisions.
Madison Metropolitan School District administrators have pushed for the change, which would prioritize culturally responsive practices and student learning outcomes instead of the experience-based system in place now. They see it as among the ways to diversify the staff and avoid putting recently hired staff of color at the most risk for layoff or reassignment, while also keeping the best teachers in the classroom.
Based on a review of research and news articles from school districts around the country and interviews with experts on the topic, they’re both right.
“It’s sort of a no-brainer, sure, let’s keep the best,” said Richard Ingersoll, a professor of education and sociology at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education. “It turns out it’s easier said than done.”
MTI’s concerns were demonstrated in a May 2019 research paper from the Education Policy Innovation Collaborative at Michigan State University, which showed teachers of color were “50% more likely to receive low evaluation ratings than white teachers within the same school.”
On MMSD’s side, the math is simple. As the district hires more people of color, that group is more likely affected any time layoffs and reassignments are necessary. In MMSD, 49.3% of Hispanic teachers and 56.4% of Black teachers were hired within the last five years compared to 37.4% of white teachers.
As staff and some School Board members pointed out earlier this month, change is needed.
The district’s teaching workforce was more than 86% white in fall 2019, well above the 41.7% of the student body. That leaves all students at a disadvantage, as research has shown all benefit from having teachers of color. It’s especially troubling for the district’s students of color, who benefit the most from having teachers and staff who look like them.
Students have spoken out in recent years asking the district to diversify its staff, including a 2017 rally outside West High School. In fall 2019, a group of students from each of the four comprehensive high schools chose it as a priority during the Minority Student Achievement Network conference.
“I could be way more successful in school having somebody that looked like me that could relate to me,” La Follette High School student Andrew West said during the conference, calling for instructors who can “speak with me and not to me.”
MMSD administrators’ proposed layoff guidelines would evaluate teachers based on five criteria with varied weighting: 40% for culturally responsive practices, 30% for student learning objectives and 10% each for additional language proficiency, academic credentials and seniority.
Travis Bristol, an assistant professor at the University of California-Berkeley’s Graduate School of Education, has studied the rates of turnover among Black teachers, specifically Black male teachers, for seven years after being a teacher and a teacher educator. He suggested that any district hoping to diversify its staff needs to first “use data to see where teachers are leaving.”
“Many people want to run to recruitment, many people want to pay attention to recruitment, and I say you have to pay attention to retention,” Bristol said. “Do some triage at those school sites where people are leaving.”
Teachers who leave, he said, are not leaving their students.
“Teachers leave their principals,” Bristol said. “Teachers leave schools where the working conditions are not strong or they’re weak, where teachers feel like principals micromanage what they have to teach, how they have to teach, and they micromanage the bodies of students in their schools.”
Seniority a common conversation
Ingersoll said conversations about layoff policies around the United States became especially prominent following the 2008 recession, with some school budgets suffering from the fallout.
“This problem is not unique to Madison,” Ingersoll said. “These became often bitter fights.”
Now, districts around the United States are having similar conversations about how to diversify their workforce as the student body continues to become more diverse.
In many places, seniority is already out of the layoff decision-making picture.
The state of Tennessee, for example, offers “model practices” for teacher placement that explicitly suggest to “avoid seniority as a determining factor in personnel decisions.” But recent reports from the state’s Department of Education indicate retaining teachers of color is still a challenge there, with 13% of teachers being people of color while 37% of the state’s students are of color.
“Nearly nine in 10 of Tennessee’s teachers of color are Black, and only two-thirds of Black teachers remained in the same school between 2017-18 and 2018-19 compared to 83 percent of white teachers,” the report states. “Highly-effective black teachers are also retained at lower rates than highly-effective white teachers.”
Ingersoll and Bristol’s research has found that teachers of color are most often concentrated in larger, urban school districts that often have poor working conditions, which can contribute to the high turnover. The Tennessee report noted something similar, but added that “lower retention of Black teachers is not unique to urban districts.”
Elsewhere, districts are having similar discussions to the one taking place in MMSD. In Providence, Rhode Island, for example, the superintendent is hoping to alter the union contract that uses seniority for job placement, according to the Boston Globe, citing the lack of teachers of color in the district.
Superintendent Carlton Jenkins’ former district, Robbinsdale Area Schools in Minnesota, reached an agreement with its union aimed at diversifying staff. In the case of layoffs or involuntary reassignment, a probationary teacher who is a member of an underrepresented population would maintain their job over a teacher within the same year of hire who is not a member of an underrepresented population.
Whenever someone is evaluated, there’s potential for the evaluator to bring in their bias.
That’s MTI’s concern with the proposed rubric, though district administrators have said they believe the criteria involved make it as objective as possible, and note there would be an appeals process for staff who disagreed with their evaluation.
Ingersoll called the search for a fair system a “tough one,” wondering if an evaluator can truly capture a teacher’s cultural responsiveness.
“Well that’s wonderful stuff, but then is it possible to objectively, accurately measure how well a teacher does that?” Ingersoll said. “That’s not a small question, that’s not a small issue.”
The proposed rubric breaks down each of the categories with specific criteria and teachers falling into one of four rankings.
A teacher would be rated poorly on the culturally responsive practices metric for being unable to “distinguish the systems and beliefs that may lead to inequitable outcomes for students” or not recognizing “student home culture and language as assets for teaching and learning,” for example. On the other end, teachers would receive a high ranking if they use “cultural competence to adapt instruction to meet the needs of each student” and “actively disrupt racist situations” and intervene with “students at the center.”
The student learning objective portion of the rubric would grade teachers on goal setting, summative assessments, progress monitoring, reflection and outcomes.
Bristol said it would be important for the district to be transparent about what data and research show as it goes through a process of changing the procedures.
Retention, climate key
According to a variety of research reviewed by the Cap Times, the most significant factor cited by staff of color who left a district was the climate of the school.
Ingersoll and Bristol have both found similar results in their research.
“The two big issues are a lack of discretion and autonomy in the classroom and a lack of collective faculty voice into key decisions in the building,” Ingersoll said. “These are management issues, they wouldn’t necessarily cost money.”
It’s especially challenging for early-career teachers of color who are the only staff of color in their building. Beyond creating an isolating atmosphere, Ingersoll said those teachers are often asked to take on more responsibilities like mentoring, discipline or coaching than other teachers, which can lead to burnout.
Bristol encouraged districts to help principals become better coaches for their new staff members, and Ingersoll suggested ramping up mentorship for early career teachers. MMSD has increased efforts to mentor early-career teachers, especially those of color, in recent years.
“There’s a growing genre of, ‘Let’s recruit and then let’s do some support,’” Ingersoll said. “That’s really where we need to go.”
Any decision on what to do about layoffs, reassignments and other potential changes should be one that’s reached with the community, Bristol said, noting that the district must especially reach out to those who may be “reticent to come” and share their opinion.
“It becomes a community decision,” Bristol said. “The district invites, it leads from the top but invites people from the bottom to participate.
“If we’re going to make these decisions, what is it that we as a community can live with?”
Share your opinion on this topic by sending a letter to the editor to firstname.lastname@example.org. Include your full name, hometown and phone number. Your name and town will be published. The phone number is for verification purposes only. Please keep your letter to 250 words or less.