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New Study Questions Bans on Seniority Teaching Rules

When it comes to staffing assignments, the tradition in education has always been clear: The senior-most teachers get the plum teaching jobs. In these tough budget times, however, that practice is fast becoming a hot issue. In California, Rhode Island, New York, and other places where the prospect of teacher layoffs loom large, new laws or proposed laws seek to end schools' longstanding "last hired, first fired" practices.

The idea, of course, is to free up administrators to hire or fire the best candidate for an open slot, rather than being forced to take the person with the most experience. But there's another reason to think about eliminating teacher seniority rules: Could it be a way to even out imbalances between the "have" and "have not" schools in a district? Study after study has shown that better-off, higher-achieving schools attract teachers who are more experienced, while the newbies end up in the tough-to-teach schools. If seniority preferences were removed, would principals in disadvantaged schools be able to keep their most promising teachers around for a few more years?

To find out, researchers at the Center for Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington analyzed seven years of data from an unnamed urban district that moved from a seniority-based hiring system to one that fills classroom slots based on "mutual consent" between teachers and schools in the early 2000s. The researchers—Betheny Gross, Dan Goldhaber, and Michael DeArmond—shared the results earlier this month at the American Educational Research Association's annual meeting in Denver.

By 2001, when the last school in the district had signed on to the policy shift, the change had led to a flurry of turnovers in schools, particularly those schools with high concentrations of minority students. By 2004, though, the dust had largely settled on all that movement, according to the researchers. But the gap in average years of experience between teachers in high-minority schools and those in low-minority schools was largely unchanged: Teachers in the most disadvantaged schools continued to be less experienced on the whole than their colleagues in the "whiter" schools.

"On balance," the researchers said, "we come away from this analysis with the impression that the elimination of seniority preferences did little to change the overall level of experience in the urban district's schools and, moreover, did nothing to change the distribution of experience in disadvantaged schools."

Granted, this is a study of just one district. But previous research in California isn't any more instructive, according to this report, which is currently being reviewed for publication. Drawing on the same data for the Golden State, one study showed that disadvantaged schools were better off in districts with fewer hiring restrictions; another found no difference. Neither one looked at what happened after a policy shift took place.

Still, it seems like the new findings, if they continue to be borne out, ought to be welcome news for the teachers unions fighting to keep those seniority protections in place.

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