THE BLOG
06/26/2011 01:49 pm ET | Updated Aug 26, 2011

A 'Marshmallow Test' For Teachers

Young teachers are great.  So smart, so energetic, so idealistic.  They can be remarkably effective in raising student achievement scores, too, especially after the first year or two.  But, the way the media portray it, the vast majority of them -- Ivy League-educated TFA members and youngish "teachers of the year," it seems -- are in danger of being pushed out of the profession for nothing more than their lack of seniority.

I have yet to see the massive and widespread layoffs that have been predicted for the past three years (and am crossing my fingers that they won't come to pass). Most of the layoffs I've seen have involved older teachers losing their jobs as part of school rescue initiatives, or resolved into very small numbers of actual layoffs. But if the economy continues to sag and indeed it really comes time to lay off large numbers of teachers this year, then I propose that policymakers administer a version of the "Marshmallow Test" to younger teachers before deciding  to keep them on and let older ones go -- even if we know that the younger teachers might be more effective.

The Marshmallow Test, as New Yorker readers may recall, puts the deliciously sweet white blobs of sugar in front of its subjects (traditionally small children) and tests their ability to resist immediate temptation in order to gain future benefits.

The teacher version of the test would operate much the same:

First, tell the promising neophyte teacher that he or she has been accepted to the graduate program of their dreams. Have the dean call with a personal welcome.

Then, tell them that their boy- or girlfriend has taken a job in an extremely appealing metropolis on the other side of the country and wants to make the move together. Have the significant other call in and talk about "how great it's going to be."

Last of all, tell them that they are considered "leadership material" and are being recruited to a new fast-track principal training program that would require them to leave the classroom. Have Wendy Kopp or Arne Duncan call in and tell them how important leadership is to the success of the education system. They'll be helping more kids, just less directly.

The Marshmallow Test is a response to the push among many reformers to end seniority layoffs and use teacher effectiveness measures instead of tenure and certification.  I understand the instinct not to let a crisis "go to waste" (though perhaps a Marshmallow Test for policymakers would be a good idea, too) but I am concerned about the implications of such a move.  Young teachers have many decisions ahead of them in life.  We don't want to create a situation in which we end up losing droves of young teachers once the economy recovers and then have to scramble to find mid-career and veteran teachers -- or a slew of newbies -- to replace them a couple of years from now.

There are also obvious moral and political arguments against trying to get rid of seniority layoffs without a reliable replacement system.  "Ending LIFO" is not an easy win or going after low hanging fruit, as it's been described by reformers including Michelle Rhee.  It goes to the very core of teachers' conception of collective bargaining, and represents a late-game rule change that nearly anyone would oppose in any other situation.  Bottom line:  Only those who can resist powerful temptations to leave the classroom should be considered for exemption from seniority-based layoffs.

Of course, layoffs may not come to pass despite all the attention they've been getting. As of last year, about 200,000 teachers & staff had lost their jobs, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities -- a relatively small number given the massive size of the education workforce and the layoffs and unemployment figures in other industries.  An influx of federal funding has kept the the long-anticipated "teacherpocalypse" at bay even as enrollment has been dropping.  Education blogger Mike Antonucci notes that the overall losses total less than one percent.