Published Online: November 16, 2005

Union Contract Rules Prevent Hiring Best Teachers, Study Says

Contract provisions that force principals to hire teachers they don’t want are hampering efforts to build a strong corps of teachers for urban schools, a report released Nov. 16 contends.

In a study of collective-bargaining agreements in five large cities, The New Teacher Project calls for revising rules that allow senior teachers to take their pick of job openings, while novices are the first to be cut and can be “bumped” from their jobs by colleagues with more seniority. The New York City-based nonprofit group urges allowing principals to hire the teachers that are the best “fits” for their schools, regardless of seniority. Maintaining current practices allows mediocre tenured teachers to choose their schools, the study said, while high-performing novices are treated as expendable. It adds that strong leaders are discouraged from taking principalships because they lack the power to assemble the teams of their choice, yet are held accountable for results.

While such work rules were adopted four decades ago as sorely needed protections from arbitrary management practices, changing times now demand a changed approach, the report’s primary author, Jessica Levin, said in an interview.

“These changes follow naturally from the emphasis on standards-based reform, highly qualified teachers, and strong accountability,” she said. “How do you get from A to B? It’s hard for us to imagine meaningfully getting there unless schools can create high-quality teams of teachers.”

Some of The New Teacher Project’s recommendations were incorporated into New York City’s recently adopted teacher contract. Schools Chancellor Joel I. Klein brought the group in to examine teacher-hiring practices, and asked it to share the findings with an arbitration panel as the contract was being negotiated. The final contract eliminates bumping and gives principals the final say in whether they hire teachers who wish to transfer into their schools or “excessed” teachers, as those whose jobs have been cut are known.

Five Urban Districts Examined

The New Teacher Project’s study looked at five districts, including New York, San Diego, and three unnamed systems. In those districts, 40 percent of school-level vacancies, on average, were filled by voluntary transfers or excessed teachers. In a Midwestern district, that figure rose to 60 percent.

Nearly 80 percent of the principals in San Diego, and 31 percent of those in New York, filled out anonymous surveys about staff hiring procedures. Nearly two-thirds of those responding in San Diego, and more than half those responding in New York, said they didn’t want one or more of such teachers in their schools. Some said that the majority proved to be poor performers.

Often, contractual rules enable weak teachers to be passed from one school to another, the report said. Forty percent of the principals interviewed in New York, and one-quarter of those interviewed in San Diego, admitted encouraging such a teacher to transfer or placing one on an “excess” list.

Conversely, many principals admitted hiding vacancies from the central office to avoid taking excessed or voluntarily transferring teachers. Nearly half the principals interviewed in San Diego, for example, reported doing so.

In addition, the report said, districts often delay hiring teaching candidates from outside the system until the summer, often sacrificing the best of those candidates to districts that can guarantee them earlier placements, the report said. One reason is that they must abide by rules that give transferring or excessed teachers the first right to job openings. The New Teacher Project first examined problems stemming from such hiring timelines in a 2003 report.

The New Teacher Project recommends eliminating voluntary transfers’ automatic rights to jobs in other schools, giving them instead a two-week period in early spring where they could get “preferential review” by principals. After that, schools could freely choose whom they hire. Excessed teachers also should get a preferred review period, and ongoing chances to apply for district jobs, but should not be forced on unwilling principals, the report said. Newer teachers should not be bumped by more senior colleagues, it recommends.

Districts also must come up with better ways to evaluate teachers, based in part on their performance with students, and ways to reward successful senior teachers, such as with more responsibility, more pay, and a meaningful career ladder, it says.

Experts Critique Proposals

Experts voiced both support and caution in response to the report’s proposals.

Julia E. Koppich, a San Francisco-based author and consultant on teacher-union issues, welcomes steps to make seniority less pivotal in teacher hiring, as Cincinnati, Seattle and New York have taken. But giving unfettered hiring authority to principals should be avoided, she said. Teachers should help decide who is hired at their schools, she said, and some form of appeals process should exist for senior teachers who are not chosen by a given school, including a justification for why they were not chosen for an opening.

She also criticized the report for ignoring the roles that district leaders play in forging union contracts, noting the frequent inclination of principals to blame “the system” instead of skillfully documenting teachers’ shortcomings. “To blame the union for inefficient transfer and assignment procedures is only placing half the blame,” Ms. Koppich said.

Linda Kaboolian, a lecturer at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government who specializes in public-sector labor relations, praised the study for using data to show the effects of contract rules, and for trying to spark dialogue. But she also said it falls short by not sufficiently examining the role management practices play in the problem.

Poor classroom performers continue to “churn” through school systems, in part, because principals lack the time and training to do detailed evaluations based on classroom observations, and because teachers are often isolated and given insufficient professional development, she said. Rushing to lessen seniority rights could backfire by driving strong senior teachers out of a district, she said.

A.J. Duffy, the president of the 48,000-member United Teachers Los Angeles, said the report’s emphasis on ending forced hires rests on a faulty premise. “No one has proved that principals being able to hire who they want leads to good student performance,” he said.

A surer route to a stronger teaching corps, he said, would be to make schools safe, and to provide strong professional development and administrative support.

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