Recruitment & Retention Opinion

Revisiting Seniority

By Michelle Mangan — June 03, 2010 6 min read
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As superintendents and principals nationwide battle serious budget crises, the seniority systems used to determine teacher layoffs in many states are under fire. A bill introduced recently in the New York state legislature proposed allowing New York City principals to lay off teachers despite seniority, promoting instead a system of committee-based assessment by parents and teachers.

Given the strength of the teachers’ union in New York City, this bill may have been dead on arrival. But as a member of this union, I welcome the bill because it raises needed questions about the way we measure and reward good teaching.

Under current seniority rules in place in many states, including New York, newer teachers are the first to be fired in a budget crisis. Unfortunately, many of these teachers are hardworking, effective educators who are forced to leave their classrooms regardless of the level of their performance. The thought of ineffective tenured teachers remaining, complacent in their positions, while talented younger teachers lose their jobs is fueling some of the strongest support for seniority reform. At the same time, however, many angry union members take offense at legislation they view as disrespectful to teachers who have dedicated years to the system.

But why should any talented teacher, regardless of years spent in the classroom, oppose efforts to create a system of teacher assessment that rewards good teaching?

Teachers’ unions, including my own, uphold seniority as the best way to measure teachers objectively during layoffs. They also support this system as a protection against administrators who might be inclined to cut higher-paid senior teachers or act on personal vendettas during times of budget tightening and substantial layoffs. These are both valid concerns, but they can be addressed without a purely “last in, first out” system.

I do not agree that 8,500 layoffs of New York City teachers is the best way to deal with the imminent budget crisis. But the current bill should prompt a difficult yet necessary discussion about measuring teacher quality, crisis or no crisis. Effective teachers exist at all levels of experience. Few would argue for a reverse of the seniority yardstick, where newer teachers would be considered more valuable. In fact, as The New York Times recently noted, a performance-based system would probably not favor younger teachers in New York City. The bottom line is that we need qualified, effective teachers, and seniority should not be the only way to measure effectiveness during a layoff.

Instead of relying entirely on seniority, New York and other school districts should move toward a comprehensive system of evaluating teachers during layoff crises, one that would combine consideration of seniority with other measures of effectiveness, and would also include necessary checks against abuse by principals. In its legislative action, New York would not be the first state to move in the direction of a more comprehensive system of evaluating teachers. Maine, Louisiana, and the District of Columbia all allow multiple criteria to be considered in teacher layoffs. As the National Council on Teacher Quality proposed in a February 2010 report on the issue, a combined system of evaluation could take into account the years teachers have invested in the system, while also adding assessments based on teacher performance, classroom management, and record of attendance. An advisory board composed of teachers and parents, or even outside evaluators, could provide additional checks against biased or unfair principals.

While reducing the subjectivity of principals’ firing decisions may be important, however, it should not be our primary concern. Few employers in any field can claim to rely on purely objective or blind measures for performance assessments, but most professions set clear standards. While seniority should be a factor in times of financial crisis, few managers in business or other professions would fire an amazing employee in place of a less competent one solely because of the latter’s years of service. Would we want an emergency physician treating us only because he or she had been working at the same hospital for 30 years? Or would we sleep more soundly knowing that this doctor had passed several levels of competence assessments and had been closely evaluated by superiors—not to mention being up-to-date on modern medical techniques? If this hypothetical doctor qualified for being retained based on merit and had 30 years of experience, all the better.

Our primary concern in New York, as in other districts, should instead be the development of a system of evaluation that sets clear standards, holds teachers accountable, and allows strong teachers to shine. Many teacher-evaluation systems currently in use make it difficult to identify the best teachers in the first place. In my public elementary school in Brooklyn, for example, every teacher is categorized either as “satisfactory” or “unsatisfactory.” These determinations are based on several formal and informal evaluations over the course of a year. I’ve often joked with colleagues about trying for an elusive “outstanding,” or even a “satisfactory plus,” but the system is not built to accredit such higher performance.

A recent agreement between the United Federation of Teachers, the New York State United Teachers, and the New York State Education Department to change this evaluation system by September of 2011 may act as a step toward a more comprehensive and valid system of teacher assessment in New York. But all districts need to make these kinds of reforms a priority in order to identify strong teaching. According to ”The Widget Effect,” a 2009 report by the New Teacher Project that studied teacher evaluation in districts around the country, limited or weak assessments of effectiveness often mean that more than 99 percent of teachers in some districts are earning the highest possible rating at any given time. In other words, many school systems have few measures in place to identify who their outstanding, or even above-average, teachers are.

As a third-year teacher, I welcome attempts to revise my district’s teacher-evaluation system to reflect the needs of students. This is not because I’m an untenured new teacher, but because I want to be part of a profession that upholds professional standards, one that requires all teachers to attain and maintain a certain level of achievement and keep it throughout their careers.

Some claim that seniority is the best way to reward teachers for staying in a system where turnover is high. But really good teachers don’t leave because there isn’t an incentive or reward for staying. Really good teachers leave because of burnout and the countless frustrations of the job. Unfortunately, many of the best also leave because of the lack of professionalism associated with what should be a very professional calling. If teachers want to be seen as professionals, why are we so afraid of adding more consideration of quality to our assessments?

Developing a valid evaluation system to measure teacher effectiveness will take reflection and patience, but we should welcome the current debate as a first step in this process, rather than as an attempt to insult veteran teachers. In times of budget tightening and potential layoffs, we want outstanding teachers to work with our kids, whether they’ve invested two years or 35 years in the system.

A version of this article appeared in the June 09, 2010 edition of Education Week as Revisiting Seniority

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