Report Blasts Teacher Hiring in City Districts

By Catherine Gewertz — November 29, 2005 4 min read
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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 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.

“Unintended Consequences: The Case for Reforming the Staffing Rules in Urban Teachers Union Contracts” is available from The New Teacher Project.

The New York City-based nonprofit group, which works with districts and states to recruit and train teachers, urges allowing principals to hire the teachers that best “fit” their schools, regardless of seniority.

Maintaining current practices allows mediocre tenured teachers to move school to school, while high-performing novices are treated as expendable, says the report, released Nov. 16. It also discourages strong leaders from taking principalships, the report argues, because they lack the power to assemble the teams of their choice, yet are held accountable for results.

While such work rules were adopted some 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.”

N.Y.C. Example

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 transferring teachers and “excessed” teachers—those whose jobs have been cut.

The New Teacher Project’s study examined New York, San Diego, and three unnamed systems. Across those five, 40 percent of school-level vacancies, on average, were filled by voluntary transfers or by teachers whose jobs in other schools had been cut. 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, completed 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.

Forty percent of the principals interviewed in New York, and one-quarter of those interviewed in San Diego, said they had encouraged a weak teacher to transfer or had placed one on an “excess” list.

Conversely, many principals said they had hidden vacancies from the central office to avoid taking teachers who had lost their jobs in other schools or were transferring voluntarily. Nearly half the principals interviewed in San Diego, for example, reported having done so.

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 when they could get “preferential review” by principals. After that, schools could freely choose whom they hire.

Teachers who have been cut also should get a preferred- review period and ongoing chances to apply for other district jobs, but should not be forced on unwilling principals, the report says. Newer teachers should not be bumped by more senior colleagues, it says.

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.

Proposals Critiqued

Julia E. Koppich, a San Francisco-based author and consultant on teacher-union issues, said she welcomes steps to make seniority less pivotal in teacher hiring, such as those 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.

She also criticized the report for ignoring the roles that district leaders play in forging union contracts. She said principals are often inclined to blame “the system” instead of skillfully documenting teachers’ shortcomings.

“To blame the union for inefficient transfer and assignment procedures is only placing the half the blame,” Ms. Koppich said.

Antonia Cortese, the executive vice president of the 1.3 million-member American Federation of Teachers, said the report “completely misses the mark” in its approach to retaining new teachers, many of whom leave schools within five years.

Solving the problem, she said in a statement, would entail putting more emphasis on peer mentoring and other supports for teachers, rather than on management issues such as how districts arrange transfers.

Adam Urbanski, a Rochester-based union leader who has been a leading voice for change as the director of the Teacher Union Reform Network, was so angry about the report that he resigned from the New Teacher Project’s board of directors. Forcing well-qualified, accomplished teachers to compete for jobs “on the same foot” as novices or outsiders sends the message that “meritorious service doesn’t count much,” he said.


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