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UPDATED: Will Reforms to Seniority Catch On?


Rhode Island Commissioner Deborah Gist has instructed districts to work to eliminate hiring practices based on seniority provisions when the districts' collective bargaining agreements come up for renewal this year. (Hat Tip to Eduwonk.) She wants hiring to be based on performance-based criteria instead.

So Teacher Beat asks the question: Is seniority poised to emerge as a major reform priority?

We're seeing efforts to experiment with a lot of traditional structures that affect teacher quality, like compensation, professional development, and evaluation. And even though no one seems ready to chuck out tenure, the conversations around evaluation could make the tenure-granting process a more meaningful one.

So far, though, seniority has been mostly ignored. For instance, the New Haven contract is being held up by union, district, and federal officials alike as a model effort for collaborative reform. But a few people have written me to point out that, even in the "turnaround" charter-like schools, teachers would maintain their transfer rights. That means teachers who aren't rehired by their principals or choose to leave the schools after the two-year commitment can pick their bid on positions based on seniority. UPDATED: There appears to be some language in the contract that gives the board the ability to staff based on the instructional needs of the school before seniority kicks in. Working to get some clarification on what that means in practice.

And practically all districts still use the system for things like layoffs, even if they've done away with seniority-based transfers.

The argument, as it's been explained to me, is that seniority is way of ensuring that teachers are treated fairly, since there's an objective rather than a subjective method of deciding who gets raises and privileges. But the definition of "fair" is sort of in the eyes of the beholder. Seniority doesn't, for instance, take teacher effectiveness into account into things like pay or layoffs, presumably a difficult thing for teachers with fewer years of experience.

But efforts to use performance-based criteria in instances such as reductions-in-force have been quite controversial. (Witness the District of Columbia or Charlotte, N.C.)

So what do you think? Is seniority still necessary as the push continues to define teacher quality in terms of student learning? Or do we risk making things even worse in school or returning to the days when it was easier for boards and principals to play favorites?


In the face of a poorly constructed evaluation system, I can certainly see returning to the days of "favorites". However, if a good evaluation system is in place that takes into account quantitative - state test scores, classroom assessment scores, etc. - and qualitative data - observations from principals and other master teachers - then we can realistically determine which teachers should stay based upon performance.

Alternately, will overturning district contracts with state regulations catch on? Or is this just a quirk of RI law? Or does Ms. Gist not really have the authority to pull this off?

There is another problem with ditching seniority in times of job layoffs. Districts usually lay off teachers due to budget problems. Why wouldn't you decide to lay off a teacher with 20 years of experience making $60,000 instead of a young teacher making only $45,000? This actually becomes age discrimination. Also, it is very, very difficult to evaluate teachers based on assessment data, as evidenced by all of the challenges districts are facing when trying to create fair merit-based pay systems for teachers. I work at an at-risk high school, and there are so many factors that go into student success: attendance, length of time you have had the student in your classroom, family economic level, parental involvement, prior knowledge and skills, personal factors such as health and home life, etc. Our district is trying an incentive-pay system, and it has been so unfair. A teacher with one student in a category (such as a senior who passed our TAKS test)has received 100% of the incentive money while another teacher who had 60 students but who had 3 special-ed kids who failed the test will receive nothing. In my opinion, being a teacher is like being a link in a very-long chain. If a student fails, it is often difficult to pinpoint how this failure happened--especially in our district which has a 25% mobility rate. Merit-based systems assume that you have had a student for a long time. In real-life, you may have had a student for only a few months before he takes that all-important test. Maybe IBM could create a computer system that takes all of these variables into account, but how much time would it take to gather and input this data? Do we have the personnel in education to track and manage all these facts? By the way, in my 17 years in education, I have seen plenty of principals who give good evaluations and perks to the teachers whose personality they like. What a surpise... administrators are human beings, too! So I would take principal evaluations with a grain of salt, too. Teaching has traditionally been a poorly-paid profession (as compared to jobs requiring the same educational level) when starting out, but once you gain years of experience, the salaries rise. (At least in some districts.) There needs to be some perks to attract people to stay in the profession. If you start ditching seniority and don't replace it with some kind of fair incentive system, it will just make teaching even less attractive.
By the way, I have consistently received high performance reviews from all of my bosses (both outside of education and within it), and I graduated with honors from WSU and OU, so there is nothing mediocre about my credentials. I am not against ditching seniority because I am a lazy teacher who can't compete! I have noticed, however, that many people who support merit-pay have little experience in a classroom. It seems like such an attractive concept... too bad it is really difficult to implement.
Cheryl Wells

I despise seniority. But I despise arbitrary worse. We don’t have a solid performance evaluation tool to use with our teachers and our principals are not trained evaluators. In DC, it was supposed to be performance based but in the 18 hour testimony marathon many of the teachers who were let go complained that they had the highest ratings. Because they ALL have the highest ratings. Until we get great evaluations in place and train principals to use them we have no solid, and defensible, means of using performance.

Senority... most parents want their children in a seasoned teachers room because with seniority comes experience. How can an administration in less then a year destroy the teaching profession? I know college graduates and students in college who have now seeked corporate America.
What this leadership has created is teachers who intend to spend time in the profession until the recession is over and they are leaving. People take pride in teaching and rather then rewarding teachers who devote their lives in preparing the youth of tomorrow this administration wants to layoff and hire new teachers. You get what you pay for.
I sincerely hope teachers over twenty years will form charter schools and their students will out score public school because unless you learn reading, math and the essentails you can bring all the technology in the world and we still will not measure up with Asian students.
Had the opportunity to study a charter school that had seniority teachers who taught the basics with technology those students aced the SAT and are college graduates.
Why is Duncan running our system? Why is Obama not listening? Help American schools before we are a third world nation with these kids we are graduating who will not be able to function in the next century.

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