Leave it to Michelle Rhee to pit teacher against teacher just as the new school year begins. In “The Great Brain Game” (Time, Sept. 12), she argues that a policy of last-in first-out in determining layoffs ensures that “thousands of great teachers” will be lost.
I have no doubt that there are many outstanding new teachers who don’t deserve to be shown the door when staffs have to be cut. But there are also many outstanding veteran teachers who would be vulnerable if seniority were eliminated. Rhee cites the case of Christine Simo in Las Vegas to make her point. So let me remind Rhee about Lee McCaskill, the former principal of Brooklyn Technical High School in New York City.
In a series of columns, The New York Times documented how he harassed veteran teachers with stellar records at the elite high school, to the point that several of them asked to be transferred (“Principal’s War Leads to a Teacher Exodus,” Jan. 28, 2004). Had it not been for the existence of seniority, these star teachers might have been forced out and novice teachers whom McCaskill liked for one reason or another would have been hired in their places.
Principals wield enormous clout as a result of the state education code, board of education policies and court rulings. In the hands of a bully, this power can make the lives of teachers miserable. They know exactly how far they can go without triggering a union grievance. Even if they cross the line and the union prevails, the stress created for the teachers involved is often unbearable.
Seniority came into existence for a good reason. Before its time, employees found themselves at the mercy of their supervisors. It was not surprising that favoritism, rather than performance, frequently determined who was let go.
Rhee says that when she was chancellor of schools in the District of Columbia, she negotiated a contract with the local teachers union that eliminated LIFO. She takes pride in pointing out that 80 percent of teachers supported the move. I wonder how they’ll feel down the line when a chancellor decides to move them out despite their long record of effectiveness?
The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner’s Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.