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?


Terra Caldwell said...

There's a good teacher at the school I just worked at who has been teaching there for 7 years. She is laid off every spring - every year - because she's the most recent hire in her department. This doesn't seem fair to me. At that same school, in a different department, there is a fabulous teacher who has been teaching for 2 years. There's also one of those teachers everyone wishes would find another career, and he's been there over 10 years. If layoffs happen, under seniority rules she goes and he doesn't. This also doesn't seem fair. The seniority system isn't working in either case. I think the seniority system is ok, but to be fair to everyone seniority has to be only a part of the layoff decision. How effective the teacher is should also be taken into account. And the policy of laying off teachers every spring and then hiring them back every fall needs to be discontinued.

Jade said...

I'm afraid I have to say that, in my experience, Seniority based systems are not a good answer if what you want is top performance from a team. Seniority certainly gets you people who *should* have the most competence, experience and institutional knowledge, however, that promise is not consistently delivered. Constant developments in technology, technical understanding, and psychology, along with our evolving society and culture require people to consistently refresh their own skills and capabilities to be the best they can be. With a Seniority based system, many people don't bother to do this, because there is no incentive for them to do so.

You are a brilliant and talented man, who also knows that you need to constantly hone your skills and awareness of current developments, to be the best teacher you can be, in addition to the Seniority based competencies you are developing through being in the classroom, participating in various working groups, etc. Practically by definition, you are not typical of the system. Not all teachers, nor people in Seniority based working environments have your kind of drive, enthusiasm, and willingness to do the "extra things" to improve themselves. And they don't have to, because once they have achieved a certain level of "security", complacency is an easy option, too often taken.

Worse, in some Seniority based layoffs, people whose entire job segment is being eliminated can "bump" others in their union, in entirely different skill groups, and take their jobs based on their time in the union, even though they'll be learning their "new" job from scratch.

I agree with you that it's hard to measure how well a teacher has imparted Critical Thinking skills to students via standardized test scores, and there may need to be some hybrid solution, or an essay based addition to testing, to accommodate that concern.

However, it's my opinion that simply going with Seniority allows way too much retained mediocrity, and does not allow for candidates who are both younger *and* better to succeed earlier, and start making a big impact at the earliest opportunity in their career. If I was in charge and had to make a choice about who to keep and who to let go, I would not want an arbitrary system to stop me from letting a veteran who has rested on their laurels for the past 10 years go, in favor of a younger, more talented, interested and better trained person. Or the other way around.

Seniority just doesn't guarantee anything about competence, so it shouldn't guarantee a job *over* competence.

Dave Orphal said...

Terra and Jade both bring up good points. The system for evaluating teacher effectiveness is broken in California. Teachers will admit that. Under the current system, an administrator spends only a few hours observing a teacher and fills out a form. It takes an administrator who is invested in her/his self-identity as a coach to go the extra mile and turn that experience into something a teacher can learn from. Additionally, it takes a culture of trust and mutual respect for teachers to hear critiques of their practice as coaching rather than gotcha.

That's not saying that the current system isn't broken. Under the current system, administrators have to many deadlines to meet and too long a process before that can successfully fire an underperforming teacher. The current system needs reform.

Ending the seniority system or simply using a ranking like value-added is an over-reaction and an overcorrection in order to avoiding the hard conversations and work it takes to fire a poor teacher.