Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Some thoughts on seniority...

I recently read an AP story about a study by the University of Washington’s Center for Education Data & Research. Researchers concluded that seniority-based layoff policies were likely to have negative consequences for students.
Seniority-based systems make sense.
How many years have you been a professional? Would you not say that you are better today than you were when you began your career? Wouldn’t you say that experience and professional development have been the two major reasons why you are a better professional today than you were when you began your career? Couldn’t most of us say the same thing?
Seniority rules make sense because everyone gets better at their profession as they gain experience and wisdom.
Seniority rules are in place because, when an organization needs to reduce it’s work force, the organization should retain the most experienced professionals.
Seniority rules also came into being because of some corrupt principals.
Unprincipled principals once abused their arbitrary power to lay-off teachers. Sometimes they let go of teachers who came out of the closet, asked too many awkward questions at meetings, held contrary political opinions, or refused sexual advances.
If unchecked power to fire and lay-off teachers were returned, some principals may be sorely tempted to lay-off 15- and 20-year veterans, without a thought of their effectiveness in the classroom, knowing that they can roll the dice on a fresh-faced college grad. The new hire may be good, or s/he may be bad, but either way, s/he be half the cost of the veteran, quite an easy solution to annually shrinking budgets.
Even if the principal at a large high school were to spend EVERY DAY visiting classrooms and watching his teachers, with over 100 professionals to visit, she would not be able to spend more than a day and a half with each teacher. She could not begin to make informed judgments about the quality of each and every teacher. It is unreasonable to expect her to make informed decisions about who to lay off, if seniority rules were suddenly stripped away.
One may counter, “That’s why we need objective test scores to tell us which teachers are effective and which are not.” The problem with the test-score worshippers is their unwillingness to consider the mountains of studies and research that have been telling us for decades that standardized tests only inform us about low-level thinking and basic fact memorization and none of the skills that most folks would equate to the word “educated.” Children who do tremendously well on these tests often flounder when asked to apply their memorized facts to answer a complex question or to show multiple ways to solve a problem.
All of this said, there are some teachers who should consider moving on to other professions. Everyone has an opinion on this, and every person I know can name a teacher that she or he knows who is a “bad teacher.” Heck… some of my colleagues or former students may even think of my name as an example of a “bad teacher.”
It should be easier to remove incompetent teachers from their classroom duties. However, whatever the next generation teacher evaluation system look likes, it must be both reasonable for school districts and fair for teachers.
Until that day, I prefer to keep lay-off decisions based on seniority. That way, at least I know that when lay-offs come, our most experienced professionals will remain in the classroom serving their students.
What do you think?  Should schools continue to use seniority to decide which teachers are laid off?  Should teachers be ranked as effective based on the scores their children get on the standardized tests and lay-off determined by those rankings?