12 March 2009


One of the best teachers I know has a luxury that nearly no teacher has. She teaches because she wants to---and so chooses to work half-time (spouse makes more than enough for the family---so pay, no matter how meager, is no concern) in the classroom and spend as much time as she likes planning instruction and reflecting on assessment. Kids love being in her classes.

But at the end of this year, she may well lose her job because she won't have enough seniority. Even though she has spent several years with the district (more years than many other teachers), the fact that she's only worked them part-time makes her overall contribution appear small. And so, out she may go, while other ineffective teachers stay.

If you keep up with Dy/Dan, you know he's in the same boat. It's the first year in his new school...and it will be his last. With the district making cuts, he's out the door, no matter how good of a teacher he is.

Maybe it's just me, but there is something wrong with all of this. Maybe not wrong from a Union perspective, but wrong from an ethical perspective. Don't kids deserve the very best teachers? The fact is, some of these will be your most experienced and longest-serving staff members---the people who are still excited by the classroom after 30 years. (WaPo recently published a letter calling them on their equating of "older teachers" to "jaded" and ineffective.) But some will be those with 5 years experience. It would seem that there could be some way to retain the best.

According to Education Week...

Seniority-based layoffs are the norm for the profession. According to a database maintained by the National Council on Teacher Quality, a Washington-based group that advocates stronger state teacher-quality policies, all but five of the nation’s 25 largest school districts follow seniority-based layoff policies set by contracts or state law. And all but one of those five is located in a right-to-work state without mandatory collective bargaining for teachers.

Typically, layoffs—frequently referred to in contracts as reductions in force, or RIFs—are enforced within teachers’ certification areas. If a district needs to cut high school social studies teachers, for instance, it cuts from the bottom of the high school social studies seniority list until the budget has been balanced. Then, it will redeploy the remaining teachers as necessary the following school year.

Teacher-quality experts have questioned the place of seniority in other personnel decisions, such as the pay and transfer of teachers, but layoff policies have attracted a lesser degree of scrutiny. In fact, some districts that now disallow seniority-based transfers, such as Rochester, N.Y., do not have a similar policy in place for layoffs.

"I think people assumed that revenue for schools could only go up, that the economy would never get so bad again that we’d have to have layoffs," said Timothy Daly, the president of the New Teacher Project, a Washington-based nonprofit that trains new teachers and supports changes to districts' personnel practices. "Nobody changed the rules or even talked about them since the 1980s. I honestly think the [poor economic] situation has caught people by surprise."

Since then, however, firm evidence has emerged to identify high-quality teaching as the single most important school-level factor for improving student achievement. Now, critics argue that seniority-based RIF policies not only fail to take teachers’ effectiveness into account, but they also necessitate the cutting of more teachers than seniority-neutral layoff policies, hurting both teachers and students in the process.

But alternatives to seniority-based layoffs have been tied up in the knotty question about how to evaluate teachers’ performance in a fair, uniform way, researchers and union officials say.

Many teachers and their unions, for instance, oppose using "value added" models that purport to estimate a teacher’s effect on student learning for high-stakes purposes. Alternative methods of evaluating teacher performance—including the peer-assistance and -review model used in Toledo, Ohio, and several other districts—aren’t yet widespread.

"We're mindful of the fact that there are old issues that we have to address sooner rather than later, but at this point, seniority is the only fair way [of determining layoffs] because without an effective way of monitoring principals, we don’t know whether their selection process would be accurate," said A.J. Duffy, the president of United Teachers Los Angeles, a merged affiliate of the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers that is bracing for layoffs this school year. "We are willing to discuss revamping the evaluation of teachers, if that is accompanied with a discussion on the evaluation process of administrators."

Principals frequently lack the tools to make appropriate personnel decisions, added Robin Chait, a senior policy analyst at the Washington-based Center for American Progress, a Washington-based think tank, who co-wrote a recent article on seniority-based layoffs.

"In some ways, [seniority] might be easier for them,” she said. "Their hands are tied."

Joanne Jacobs recently posted on the ability of administrators in Providence, RI, to select teachers based on who is best suited for a position as opposed to strictly using seniority. Other states may change their teacher tenure rules so that the way seniority works changes to allow districts to keep the best teachers they have. I can't imagine that this would have any immediate impact, but perhaps over the next decade things might start to change when the RIF notices are handed out.

You know, I'm grown up. I understand that life isn't fair and so forth. I accept that the system isn't perfect and is a work in progress. But I would like to think that equity within the classroom can be improved. I'd hope we could start making some sense where choices about teacher retention are concerned.


Hugh O'Donnell said...

I may be oversimplifying, but this comment box isn't looking for the long version. ;)

Two things:

1. Retaining teachers based on competency and ability to engage students is a great idea, but it runs into the same problems we encounter with teacher merit pay. The system is not equipped to differentiate appropriately.

2. On a positive note, if we hire competent principals at the building level, they will not tolerate ineffective teachers. Shake the danged tree and let the rotten fruit fall. It takes some guts, but I've worked with a couple of principals who shook the tree, trimmed the vine, and, in a very professional manner, cleaned house.

Those who say we can't get rid of teachers who don't do the job aren't doing the job themselves.

And, if we clean house, we have jobs for exceptional teachers, cuz there will, sure as hell, be vacancies if the principal does their job.

Hugh O'Donnell said...

Gahh, Grammar Girl just texted me...

I meant to say, with regard to the principal, "does his or her job."

So much for stream of consciousness typing, eh?

Nancy Flanagan said...

Hey, Science Goddess.

I share your cynicism about the seniority system. It's in place to prevent a district from choosing a cheaper (and perhaps less effective) novice over a more expensive veteran, when times get tough. But I agree that in practice, it sometimes keeps "coasting" veterans--or, worse, teachers who should have gone into real estate 20 years ago--around, and scarfing up lots of resources.

And a lot of promising newbies get out of teaching altogether, when they get the first pink slip, because they see the same thing happening again and again.

However--I'm very glad you included the link to the WaPo article, because as cynical as I am about seniority, I'm even more cynical about the Michelle Rhees of the world who just want to give those exciting new (CHEAP) teachers a chance, darn it. Becoming a good teacher is an investment in time and skill acquisition--not a two-year adventure before you go to grad school. I personally feel I hit my stride in teaching between years 15 and 20 (when I had enough confidence in my practice to take some instructional risks and knew how to look for evidence that the kids were genuinely learning). It takes time to learn to teach well, and a revolving door of new kids doesn't lead to consistency in programs or teachers who work well with their colleagues. And that's just as important as bringing new blood into the faculty.

Jason Buell said...

The thing that always bothers me is whenever I bring up "teacher quality" as something that should matter in terms of contract stuff, my fellow teachers won't even discuss it.

As teachers, our job is basically a cycle of assessing and remediation. Why are we so opposed to being assessed ourselves? Of course our assessments and criteria aren't going to be perfect, but neither are my tests. I go back and revise/refine them. Eventually they get closer to the ideal. But if we won't even have the conversation, we're stuck.