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How Should Pennsylvania Measure Teacher Effectiveness?

The Pennsylvania state senate passed the Protecting Excellent Teachers Act this week, which would end the practice of layoffs based solely on seniority, but Gov. Tom Wolf has vowed to veto the bill.

State Rep. Steve Bloom (R-Cumberland County) wrote the legislation. He says that while only 1.8 percent of Pennsylvania teachers are failing or need improvement, they should be the first considered for layoffs.

“Districts are mandated to lay teachers off, if they have to make a layoff, strictly based on blind seniority,” Bloom says. “If anyone has to be laid off, in that unfortunate circumstance, we make sure that that person would not be one of our best teachers, but would be a failing teacher.”

The bill would use the teacher evaluation system approved in 2012 combining in-person observation with student growth and test scores as well as the school’s performance profile. Seniority would remain in place as a tiebreaker for teachers being considered for layoffs.

Nina Esposito-Visgitis, president of the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers, says the rating system is flawed, and great teachers in poor performing school districts may receive lower ratings than lesser teachers in better performing schools.

“The present evaluation system absolutely unfairly affects teachers who work with children in poverty or children in the urban areas,” Esposito-Vigitis says. “I think they are absolutely unfairly targeted.”

She says the legislation is a distraction from addressing education funding, and the current evaluation system effectively addresses underperforming teachers.

“When supervisors find that teachers are ineffective, they’re put on an improvement plan,” Esposito-Visgitis says. “They’re given support — as they should be — and within a reasonable time, they’re let go if they’re not a good teacher.”

Bloom says this isn’t about school funding, as factors like population changes within districts will dictate layoffs regardless of funding. He also notes poorer school districts have more turnover.

“The current system is actually penalizing our poorest school districts, hurting the teachers in those districts and most importantly hurting the kids in those districts,” Bloom says.

He says 72 percent of Pennsylvanians support the legislation, and they have the backing of all major groups within the state with the exception of teachers unions. According to Bloom, Pennsylvania is one of only six states mandating seniority as the only tool districts can use when making layoffs.

Esposito-Visgitis says 98.2 percent of teachers are rated distinguished or proficient, so high-performing teachers are not the problem.

“What’s hurting our poorest school districts is that they’re not getting the funding they need to support the kids and the teachers,” she says. “That’s what’s hurting teachers. That’s why teachers are leaving wand we’re facing a real teaching shortage across our state.”

But Bloom says Republicans in the legislature want to see more accountability.

“We’re not prepared to simply spend more money on public education in PA if it’s not linked with accountability measures, measures to make our schools more effective,” Bloom says. “That’s part of the bargain.”

More Essential Pittsburgh segments can be heard here.