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Before LIFO Can End

As teacher evaluation has become a more serious concern around the country, we're starting to see things happen through a process that was once considered a mere formality. Teacher evaluation is growing teeth, and they're starting to show.

In New York City schools this year, just 45% of 3rd-year teachers successfully gained tenure this year, down from 97% just five years ago. This can be attributed in large part to a four-tier evaluation system, which according to the Times has been accompanied by additional training for principals:

The city's Education Department now has a team that trains principals in gathering the kind of evidence needed to assess a teacher's skills. It also developed a rubric in which teachers were rated on a four-point scale in each of three categories: the teacher's practice, based in part on classroom observations; students' learning, which is judged largely on test score improvement; and the contributions the teacher makes to the school community. link

While this may not seem like a huge innovation to outsiders, having a four-level scale that makes it clear, in several different aspects of job performance, just how well someone is doing, is an essential step in making evaluations more meaningful and rigorous. As the Times notes, several states have made dramatic moves to reform tenure in the past few years, and I believe that four-tier evaluation rules, which were encouraged by Race to the Top, are playing a major role, and must come before the demise of seniority-based layoffs (also known as Last-In, First-Out, or LIFO).

Just over the state line, while many in NJ are celebrating groundbreaking reforms, there's still a push to end LIFO right away, but I think proceeding one step at a time is in order.

Why? Because you can't lay off people fairly by performance if you don't evaluate people's performance very well, and in most places, teacher evaluation has not been taken very seriously.

And why don't we take teacher evaluation seriously? Easy: If layoffs are going to happen on the basis of seniority, and everyone is either satisfactory or unsatisfactory, why should principals invest a great deal of time in doing high-quality evaluations? Principals know (or think we know) intuitively who is truly "unsatisfactory," so it's all too easy to enter the evaluation process with just one goal: Hammer on the truly unsatisfactory staff (if there are any), and give everyone else a not-very-useful "satisfactory" rating. With such little thought and effort put into making meaningful distinctions between levels of performance (even if the evaluation process has always been very time-consuming for principals), it's no wonder teachers don't trust evaluations to be used in layoff decisions.

Moving from a sat/unsat system to a four-tier system is the first step in getting principals to provide more careful and detailed judgments of teacher performance, and these judgments provide far more data points that can ultimately be used in layoff decisions. Until we have at least a few cycles of this evaluation data on hand, and teachers have had time to buy into the idea that detailed evaluations can actually be more fair, we're not ready for LIFO to end.

But we will be soon. The data is coming in, and as New York has started to realize, better evaluations really are possible, and really can lead to better decisions.

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