Education Opinion

Teacher Seniority Suffers Another Blow

By Walt Gardner — December 13, 2010 2 min read
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In a decision that has wide-ranging implications, a Los Angeles County Superior Court judge approved changes to the last-hired, first-fired rule in the nation’s second largest school district. The American Civil Liberties Union successfully argued that students on campuses with a preponderance of new teachers were deprived of their constitutional right to an adequate basic public education because their schools took the brunt of the seniority-based layoffs.

The court’s ruling mandates that layoffs have to occur at about the same rate from campus to campus across the LAUSD. This requirement means that newer teachers at some schools could hold onto their jobs while veteran teachers at other schools could be laid off. Some 45 schools could be spared completely if they posted academic growth. The judge went further in saying that California law could allow the district to fire ineffective teachers even before considering seniority.

Although the judge acknowledged that the new policy could be “prone to cronyism, favoritism and the other ills,” and that seniority is enshrined in state law and the contract with United Teachers Los Angeles, he found the settlement reasonable. (I first commented on the case on Oct. 8 in “Teacher Seniority on the Ropes”.)

The decision is not legally binding on other states. But to tell the truth, I don’t get it. Are new teachers more effective than veteran teachers, which is what the suit seems to assert? Or are new teachers less effective, which is the position taken by supporters of seniority.

The answer is that it’s impossible to generalize. Effectiveness can be found in both groups of teachers. That’s probably why the court ruled as it did. But by mandating that layoffs have to occur at the same rate on all campuses, the court sidestepped the more fundamental issue. I think a fairer way would be for all schools to adopt a policy of identifying sub-par teachers early, offering them support to improve, and firing them if they do not. This process can and should be done without regard to seniority.

I seriously doubt that educational outcomes for the vast majority of students would significantly improve if seniority were abolished tomorrow. I say that because I don’t think we can fire our way to better schools. There are 3.2 million teachers in 98,000 public schools in the country. Rather than a punitive approach, I think that a supportive policy would benefit students the most without the need to turn to the courts.

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.