Proposed firing policy faces opposition

Senior Staff Writer
Thursday, February 23, 2012


A bill introduced in the Rhode Island House of Representatives would expand the state’s current policy for firing teachers through a process that prioritizes how long they have been teaching.

Under current law, teachers with the least amount of experience in a given district are fired first when there is a reduction in student population. The bill’s amendments would expand the criteria for firing to include “program reduction or elimination or budget reduction.” The measure, proposed by state Rep. Scott Guthrie, D-Coventry,  is currently facing opposition from state officials and local teachers’ unions. 

By expanding the criteria for seniority-based firing, the bill aims to reduce districts’ incentives to fire teachers based on performance. The expansion is necessary because students across the state and the country needs to know that teaching offers a definite amount of job security, Guthrie said.

“In any job, there has to be some level of security,” Guthrie said. “You shouldn’t be hired and fired at the whim of anybody.” 

But critics have said focusing solely on seniority could give poorly performing teachers a free pass. “Clearly, when teacher layoffs and callbacks are based solely on seniority, student interests are not part of the process,” wrote Commissioner of Elementary and Secondary Education Deborah Gist in an email to The Herald, adding that she values educator quality over seniority in the teacher retention process. 

But Guthrie said he thinks teacher evaluations — the most commonly used form of measuring performance — can often be an inadequate basis for retention. “I don’t think there are poor-performing teachers,” he said, adding that teaching is a profession that involves growth and improvement over the length of a career. Often, one poorly performing student could actually be the cause of a bad teacher evaluation, he added. 

Teacher performance is often a widely discussed issue in the state, which was recently ranked second in the nation for its policies toward teachers by the National Council on Teacher Quality. 

“The single most important school-based factor in the successful education of our students is the quality of our classroom teachers,” Gist wrote.

Educators are working to incorporate new peer-based and administrative teacher evaluations passed by the Rhode Island Board of Regents, said Frank Flynn, president of the Rhode Island Federation of Teachers and Health Professionals. In the third and final year of the evaluation’s pilot program, Flynn said districts are “trying to provide the training and support for teachers to become successful using them.”

Flynn said teachers are not opposed to evaluation systems that track student growth. “It’s a model that is designed to provide feedback to the teachers and improve their craft,” he said.

But Flynn said teachers have objected to the second portion of the bill, which aims to push back the date by which schools must inform teachers of layoffs. Currently, the law requires schools to inform educators on or before March 1 about layoffs. The bill would extend the deadline to May 15. Flynn said this is problematic for districts that may want to focus on resolving performance problems prior to conclusive termination. If the deadline is pushed back, teachers will receive notice of their termination later and not get the chance to attempt to improve their performance, he said.

The current deadline also puts districts in an awkward position because of the discrepancy between the academic year and the fiscal year, which begins in July, Gist said. 

“Because March 1 occurs so early in the budgeting process, districts tend to send layoff notices to a large number of teachers, most of whom they will reinstate before the close of the school year,” Gist wrote. “This notification process causes undue stress and confusion.” 

The proposed amendment would be just one of many changes being implemented in school districts across the state. Flynn noted that many schools are experiencing a “morale problem” because of the number of changes being enacted over such a short period of time, adding that school administrators are finding it difficult to enforce changes without the necessary personnel to do so.

“People do not think they are supported at the school level,” Flynn said. “There has been some pushback lately. It’s great to have good policies, but we need to implement them on a realistic timeline.”