Common Sense in Teacher Hiring

Why states should follow California’s lead in reforming teacher-transfer rules.

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A familiar ritual takes place every fall as schools across America open their doors to the rush of students. Newspapers and television stations produce story after story about the new class, the novice principal, the nervous parents. Beyond a few words about setting up their classrooms, however, the teachers themselves generally receive little notice. For the most part, everyone takes it for granted that students will have teachers in place, and that those teachers will be the right ones for the job. But is that really the case?


Until recently, the process by which teachers find jobs and move between schools did not command great attention. Teacher hiring and school staffing were a province of the schools’ human-resources departments. Except for those immediately involved, no one really cared, because it didn’t seem to matter that much.

We now know that it does matter. As the New Teacher Project showed in a 2005 study, “Unintended Consequences: The Case for Reforming the Staffing Rules of Urban Teachers Union Contracts,” the complex system of policies and procedures governing teacher hiring in the nation’s schools can in fact threaten their ability to control the most powerful tool they have to improve student achievement: the quality of the classroom teacher. ("Report Blasts Teacher Hiring in City Districts," Nov. 30, 2005.)

The study concluded that collectively bargained transfer and teacher “excess” rules, which regulate the movement of current teachers among schools, are especially to blame. These seniority-based staffing rules often force schools to hire poorly matched and poorly performing teachers from other schools within their district. Furthermore, districts lose new candidates, who seek jobs elsewhere after growing frustrated with hiring delays caused by these rules. Talented novice teachers are vulnerable to being bumped by more-senior teachers who, by contract, can take their jobs. And regardless of how they are performing, these novices are also the first to be cut from a school’s staff in the event of budget or enrollment changes. Though well-intended, today these rules do a disservice to both students and teachers.

This fall, California became the first state to try to tackle this issue legislatively. After carefully studying the collective bargaining agreements of the state’s largest urban school systems, we determined that their school staffing rules were similar to those described by “Unintended Consequences.” These rules negatively affect the ability of schools to hire the best-qualified teachers. Mindful of the rules’ devastating impact on students, and aware that reform would come slowly or not at all if it were pursued one school district at a time, we elected for a bolder approach. We would address these problems all at once, for all schools in the state. Senate Bill 1655 was our answer.

SB 1655 is designed to ensure that local teacher-transfer rules no longer interfere with the ability of schools to make timely job offers and staff their classrooms with the best possible teachers. First, the bill states that a teacher can never be transferred to a low-performing school if the principal of that school refuses to accept the transfer. In addition, it requires that any seniority-based voluntary-transfer processes be completed for all schools by April 15, thereby freeing principals to consider all teacher-candidates equally after this date—and to hire the best one for the job.

It is important to emphasize that SB 1655 is not meant to suggest that all transferring teachers are undesirable, or to cheapen the value placed on a teacher’s experience. To the contrary, we believe that teachers deserve our utmost respect and appreciation, and that their service should be rewarded. But we cannot do so at the expense of students. Moreover, we believe that truly respecting teachers entails creating a culture in which they are chosen for hire not on the basis of a blind calculation of seniority, but on the basis of their unique skills and knowledge.

Given the boldness of its aims, the California legislation could easily have failed. In fact, nearly everyone expected the measure to encounter significant opposition, and teachers’ unions did oppose it. Yet the bill has become proof that a determined coalition of individuals and organizations working for the best interests of students can overcome entrenched cultures and institutional inertia. Together with the education reform organization EdVoice, we rallied a diverse group of community organizations and civil rights groups to let California’s legislators know that rules that prevent low-performing schools from hiring the teachers they need would no longer be tolerated.

Truly respecting teachers entails creating a culture in which they are chosen for hire not on the basis of a blind calculation of seniority, but on the basis of their unique skills and knowledge.

As a result, SB 1655 quickly gained broad, bipartisan support. It first passed the Senate education committee, and was passed by the full state Senate on a 33-1 vote. The opposition grew more intense in the Assembly, the legislature’s lower house, but the bill ultimately passed, 59-12, in a final floor vote on Aug. 22 of this year. On Sept. 28, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed it into law.

To many, the core goal of the measure—giving individual schools in a large district a bigger say in which teachers they hire—must seem shockingly common-sensical. After all, it is hard to imagine that any enterprise could succeed without the ability to choose the people who make it work. Yet this is only one of a number of constraints under which many of the nation’s public schools must operate. This bill is not a cure-all, as further changes will be necessary to address other collectively bargained staffing policies that similarly limit schools’ ability to hire high-quality teachers. But it goes a long way toward balancing the desires of teachers with the needs of schools to staff their classrooms early and effectively. We call on legislators in other states to pursue similar reforms, and to use SB 1655 as a model.

More immediately, the California legislation is worth celebrating for the impact it promises to have on the quality of teachers hired by struggling schools across that state. By giving these schools the ability to hire better teachers, it offers a better chance at success for hundreds of thousands of the state’s neediest students. Such an accomplishment remains all too rare, despite the rhetoric of our times.

If the next generation of Americans is to succeed, we must offer more than small-scale solutions to the big challenges facing the country’s high-need schools. We need to demonstrate that we have the courage to demand more for our students, and to seek change not just around the edges. We must seek genuine reform and require change in the little-noticed mechanisms that shape the basic functioning of our school systems. Our first priority must be to place the best-qualified teachers in classrooms with all of our students. After all, isn’t this what education is all about?

Vol. 26, Issue 12, Page 31

Published in Print: November 15, 2006, as Common Sense in Teacher Hiring
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