Will 'Bumping' Eventually Tilt Massachusetts' Schools?

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There is a game of educational pinball currently being played in the schools of Massachusetts and, I suspect, elsewhere, that in the long run will be more detrimental to education than any financial burdens imposed by such tax-limitation measures as Massachusetts' Proposition 2. It is the practice--especially prevalent in the secondary schools--of "bumping," a practice in which teachers with greater seniority and a larger number of areas of certification lay claim to the positions of their less senior but better academically prepared colleagues. Many collective-bargaining agreements between teachers and school committees permit this practice.

In Massachusetts, neither bumping nor seniority is a protection given to teachers by statute. Rather, they are provisions won in recent years by teachers' unions that anticipated declining enrollment and sought greater job security at the bargaining table. School committees agreed to these provisions as a trade-off for not being either able or willing to keep teachers' salaries on a par with inflation. Now, Proposition 2 has brought about the prospect of large-scale teacher layoffs.

Central to the question of whether one teacher ought to be able to bump another teacher is the difference between what a certified teacher is and what a qualified teacher is.

To become certified as an English teacher in Massachusetts, for example, an applicant has to show evidence to the State Board of Education of 18 credit-hours in the field. Most colleges require 30 credit-hours for a major. Current certification standards in most states are written in broad strokes and merely reflect the minimal requirements necessary for a license to teach. At a meeting I attended on the issue of declining enrollment, a lawyer for the Massachusetts Teachers' Association (MTA) advised teachers to become certified in as many areas as they could, for the more areas of certification the greater the bumping power. The MTA party line is that to be certified is to be qualified. It is a philosophy that reduces the standards of educational preparation to the lowest common denominator.

Yet the law in Massachusetts makes no such claim for certification. It says that even with declining enrollment a tenured teacher cannot bump a non-tenured teacher unless the tenured teacher is "qualified to fill" the new position. There are no automatic rights to a job unless a senior teacher can prove that he or she is qualified for the new post.

Prescribing Quality

The argument that certified is qualified is further weakened by another state statute that says that no teacher can be initially employed in a school system without proper certification, but that the school committee can prescribe "additional qualifications." Unfortunately, many school committees have failed to make such prescriptions--or they believe that certification is the sole variable in promoting educational excellence.

Teachers are not interchangeable parts. As a teacher, I would feel demeaned if my performance were measured by the performances of colleagues who have bumped more academically qualified but junior teachers. As a department chairman, I would feel betrayed if the preparation in the methodology, perspectives, and developments of my field were entrusted to marginally prepared neophytes. As a parent, I would be outraged if my children were taught by teachers who in all probability would never have been hired in the first place for the assignment.

Education, like other professions, has its specialists. That is one of the reasons for certification in the first place. But the requirements for certification are too easy to get and to hold. Bumping is akin to a heart-attack patient going to the emergency room only to find that the cardiologist has been replaced by a podiatrist. The interstate agreement on the certification of educational personnel offers no protection in this regard, because the states generally accept one another's certification standards.

It makes no sense to argue for better salaries if the qualifications necessary to become and stay a teacher are not rigorously monitored. Perhaps bumping in some forms could be permitted if the teachers so affected gave up tenure or took a salary reduction until their qualifications equalled those of their peers. Teachers are making a big mistake not to recognize the shortcomings of bumping as it is now practiced.

More than the Minimum

This is not to say that all teachers certified for two or more subjects are unqualified for new assignments. It is to say that requirements for certification only establish minimal criteria for being considered for a job and should not grant the bearer automatic or continuous job security. Bumping requests should be reviewed on an individual basis with paramount emphasis on rigorous preparation in the new field.

We already hear enough in the media about declining test scores and the public's disaffection with its schools. Maintaining quality--and the public's trust in our schools--is not going to get any easier at a time when all public-service institutions are asked to do more with less. And "less" was never meant to protect the jobs of less qualified teachers at the expense of the education of children. Public attention should be focused on who the people are who remain in the classrooms before our schools register one final "TILT."

Vol. 01, Issue 01, Page 21

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