Op-Ed: ‘Schools That Teach’ Effectively

Who was your favorite teacher? For many of us, an encouraging mentor and fond memories of learning immediately come to mind. Almost everyone can recall at least one teacher who made a positive impact on our life. Excellent teachers create lessons brimming with discovery, they inspire, guide and make the classroom an exciting place to learn and grow. Our best teachers devote themselves to leading young minds along a meaningful academic journey. They are the very foundation of a quality education system.

In order to provide Pennsylvania students with “Schools That Teach” effectively, we must respect and protect our excellent teachers. In recent weeks, Gov. Tom Wolf has been using photo-ops in classrooms around the state to push the education spending aspects of his budget proposal. But lost in the governor’s media hype is a meaningful conversation about how we can actually improve the quality and effectiveness of our schools.

As we all know, far too often, more government spending only serves to mask problems and deter genuine reform. Spending alone is not the best solution for Pennsylvania students.

One obvious way we can improve educational outcomes for our children across the Commonwealth – without spending an extra dime – is by ensuring only the best teachers are teaching in our classrooms. Shocking as it may sound, under current law, the quality of teacher performance is not even considered when determining which teachers stay or go.

Every school district sometimes makes tough choices. Those choices may mean laying off teachers. But because of unfair state rules, we often force out our best educators simply because they have fewer years of seniority than other, less effective teachers. Excellent teachers lose the opportunity to build a lasting educational legacy for our children, because we unwisely elevate teacher seniority over teaching success.

If the governor is genuinely concerned about “providing all children with a quality public education,” as he asserts on his Schools That Teach website, we are hopeful he can recognize that we must do more than just spend ever-increasing amounts of taxpayer dollars. To ensure the very best outcomes for our kids, we must agree to keep our best teachers in the classroom.

To this end, we have jointly introduced legislation to stop the unnecessary discrimination imposed against our best teachers by seniority-based layoffs.

Under existing law, schools are authorized to furlough teachers to address decreases in enrollment, to curtail or alter programs, for consolidation of schools, or when new districts are established. Our proposal would include commonsense consideration of economic necessity. And, most importantly, in those unfortunate circumstances in which layoffs may be required, our legislation, known as the Protecting Excellent Teachers Act, would ensure that those decisions are made based on teaching success as measured by Pennsylvania’s comprehensive teacher evaluation system.

A statewide teacher evaluation rubric was enacted in 2012. This new evaluation system is well balanced and measures a broad matrix of factors, far more than standardized test results. Fifty percent of the evaluation includes evidence-based administrator observation of classroom practices. The other half includes multiple measures of student academic performance: achievement data, growth data (a value-added assessment system which measure how students improve from year to year), academic indicators such as graduation and promotion rates, and finally, elective school specific data that is locally chosen by the school district.  Where test scores are used as part of the criteria, a three year average of data is used to safeguard against variations in classroom abilities from year to year.

To protect excellent teachers at all levels of seniority, our bills also prohibit a school district from using a teacher’s salary amount in determining any layoff decision.

Pennsylvania is one of only 11 states that still mandate layoff decisions based solely on seniority. We can end this narrow-minded approach and give all students the chance to learn with the very best teachers. We can look beyond just the dollars we spend and work instead to restore the effectiveness of our schools. The success of our students determines our destiny. We can improve the quality of our classrooms and better prepare our children for the future….and we can start by ensuring our “schools that teach” are teaching effectively.

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