Thursday, December 16, 2010

Seniority could mean less for teachers

By Jamey Dunn

Legislators are considering reforms of Illinois’ public schools that would change practices for granting teachers tenure, as well as firings and layoff decisions.

Reform advocates say teachers' performance on the job should play a larger role than seniority in determining the trajectories of their careers.

As part of Illinois’ failed bid for Race to The Top, a competitive federal education grant program, the General Assembly passed a law that requires school districts to revamp the evaluations they use to assess teachers’ work. Under the new law, student performance will play a large role in the way educators are rated.

The committee is scheduled to meet again tomorrow morning.

Some legislators and reform groups want to see the results of those evaluations become the primary factor in administrative decisions.

Robin Steans, executive director of education reform group Advance Illinois and sister of Chicago Democratic Sen. Heather Steans, said teachers should be granted tenure after four years of positive evaluations, instead of just four years on the job. “Tenure should be earned and retained by virtue of effective performance,” Steans told the House Education Reform committee at a hearing in Aurora.

She said this method would give new teachers more time to improve and principals more time to consider a teacher before having to decide whether to let them go or make the commitment of granting tenure.

Steans said Illinois should streamline its process for terminating teachers to allow schools to more easily fire those who are not meeting expectations. “The reality is, teachers are very rarely dismissed for ineffective performance.”

She adds that performance should be considered when schools have to make layoffs, as well. “When there are tough decisions to make around lay offs, decisions ought to be driven by what’s good for the kids in that building. From that point of view, performance has to be a factor. It doesn’t mean seniority shouldn’t matter, but let’s make sure the teachers who remain in the classroom have proven themselves effective.”

Rep. Roger Eddy, a Hutsonville Republican and co-chair of the House committee, said legislators should be careful to consider possible unintended consequences of the reform. He said schools might target more senior teachers for firings and layoffs, because they have higher salaries and cost districts.

Steans said that seniority would still be a consideration, but performance would come first.

According to a draft version of legislation, which includes some of the provisions under debate, obtained by Illinois Statehouse News any changes would supercede teacher contracts agreed to in the collective bargaining process.

Union officials say they and teachers are being cut out of the conversation. While the focus of their testimony was not direct opposition to the proposed reforms, they did call on legislators to slow down and work with educators, whom the changes would affect.

“Give the people who will have to implement these reforms time to figure them out. Not months. Not years. But not days either. That’s not right. But it does make everyone watching this today wonder what the motivation is--real change that improves education for kids, or something else,” said Audry Soglin, executive director of the Illinois Education Association.

Soglin pointed to the reform package passed in conjunction with Race to the Top as the result of a deliberative process that brought in stakeholders on all sides of the issues. “We have a track record of working productively together, management, union, advocacy groups, reformers.”

She added, “This is not an attempt to drag out a process to obstruct change. … We did it last year. We did it quickly; we did it collaboratively, and we produced something that we should be proud of.”

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