School & District Management Commentary

Staffing Urban Schools

By Michelle Rhee & Jessica Levin — January 03, 2006 7 min read

It is no secret that you need a great team of teachers to make a great school. Indeed, the research is clear: A school’s greatest driver of student achievement is the quality of the classroom teacher.

Unfortunately, urban schools have one hand (and sometimes both) tied behind their backs as they try to build high-quality teaching staffs. A study released in November by our nonprofit organization, the New Teacher Project, reveals how the staffing rules mandated by teachers’ union contracts effectively prevent urban schools from focusing on teacher quality, school fit, or the needs of students when making fully 40 percent of their staffing decisions.

— Dave Cutler


The study, “Unintended Consequences: The Case for Reforming the Staffing Rules in Urban Teachers’ Union Contracts,” focuses on the rules governing “voluntary transfers” (teachers with seniority rights who want to move between schools) and “excessed teachers”(teachers whose positions are cut from their schools, often due to enrollment or budget changes). In the five urban districts we studied, the results of these rules are largely the same: Schools are forced to hire large numbers of poorly matched—or worse, poorly performing—incumbent teachers; new teacher hiring occurs too late to secure the most talented applicants; and newly hired teachers are treated as expendable, regardless of ability.

Our findings show that the transfer and excess rules undermine effective staffing in urban schools in four major ways:

Schools are forced to hire large numbers of teachers they do not want and who may not be good fits for their jobs and their schools.

Voluntary-transfer rules often give senior teachers the right to interview for and fill jobs in other schools, even if those schools do not consider them good fits, and excess rules generally require schools to hire excessed teachers without any selection process at all. In the five districts during one hiring season, we found that an average of 40 percent of vacancies were filled by voluntary transfers or excessed teachers, over whom schools had either no choice at all or limited choice. In one district, 47 percent of principals admitted to hiding their vacancies from the central staff to avoid hiring these teachers, and almost two-thirds of those who took such teachers said they did not wish to have one or more of them.

Poor performers are passed from school to school instead of being terminated.

Rules mandated by union contracts effectively prevent schools from focusing on teacher quality, school fit, or the needs of students.

While the quality of voluntary transfers and excessed teachers spans the continuum, a subset of the teachers forced on schools appears to consist of poor performers passed from one school to another because of the lack of a viable teacher-termination process. Labor-relations staffs in each district reported that only one or two tenured teachers are formally terminated for poor performance each year; out of a total of 70,000 tenured teachers in these five districts, only four were terminated for poor performance. Because of the low likelihood of successfully removing a tenured teacher, many principals opt instead to transfer poor performers or classify them as excess. Roughly 40 percent of surveyed principals in one district and 25 percent in another acknowledged encouraging a poorly performing teacher to transfer or placing one on an excess list.

New teacher applicants, including the best, are lost to late hiring.

Only after the forced placements of voluntary transfers and excessed teachers occur are schools typically allowed, by contract, to place new hires, including veterans from other districts. By then, however, it is too late to compete with neighboring districts for the best new teacher talent. With only one month to go before the start of school, the districts studied still had to hire and place between 67 percent and 93 percent of their new teachers. Our previous research showed that urban districts that hire teachers after May 1 lose large numbers of applicants, including the best, to districts that hire earlier.

Novice teachers are treated as expendable regardless of their contributions to their schools.

Even after schools manage to hire new teachers, the transfer and excess rules place their jobs in constant jeopardy. In the face of staffing cuts, novice teachers are, by default, generally the first to be excessed, unless a more senior teacher volunteers to leave; between 26 percent and 46 percent of excessed teachers were in their first three years in the district.

In many districts, novice teachers also can be bumped from their positions if teachers with more seniority need or just want their jobs. For example, in three of the districts, anywhere from 10 percent to 50 percent of novice teachers, often with a full year of experience at their schools, were at risk of losing their jobs if other, more-senior teachers simply wanted to transfer into them. Almost one-quarter of principals in one of these districts reported having at least one new hire or novice teacher bumped in their schools the prior year.

In summing up the devastating effect of his lack of choice over his teachers, one principal echoed many others when he said: “Selecting the right teachers for my school is my greatest responsibility as a principal. … I work hard at professional development and building collaborative teams, and often must accept someone for a position who I know will not contribute to the work of the grade-level team and will, in many cases, be a detriment to children.”

It would be overly simplistic to blame union rules for all of the staffing problems facing urban schools. School leadership, human resources, and budget reforms are also pieces of the puzzle. Moreover, it would be wrong to assume that unions are solely responsible for these rules. School boards and superintendents willingly signed off on them, at least in part because they appeared to have no economic cost. We also are not minimizing the critical importance of experienced teachers or suggesting they should not be rewarded for their service.

At the same time, the impact of these rules can no longer be ignored, as they place hundreds and sometimes even thousands of teachers in urban classrooms each year with little regard for the appropriateness of the match, the quality of the teacher, or the overall impact on schools. Moreover, our data show that in the five districts studied, these rules negatively affect all schools, regardless of poverty level, indicating the need for a systemic solution to this systemic problem.

To enable urban schools to hire and keep the best teachers for the job and to staff their classrooms effectively, the following reforms to contractual transfer and excess rules are essential:

Ensure that transfer and excess placements are based on the mutual consent of the teachers and the receiving schools.

The intense competition for high-quality new teachers means that urban systems cannot wait to hire and place them until a month or less before school starts.

Voluntary transfers and excessed teachers should always receive an early preferential review for available positions and numerous opportunities to receive satisfactory new placements. They should not, however, be forced on any school without its consent. Therefore, contractual rules that require a school to hire a specific transferring or excessed teacher—or even pick from a group of transfers—should be eliminated. School systems should explore alternative placement options for unplaced excessed teachers, such as the creation of a reserve pool for a specified time period.

Reform the timelines for transfer and excess processes to permit earlier hiring of new teachers.

The intense competition for high-quality new teachers means that urban systems cannot wait to hire and place them until a month or less before school starts. After giving preferential review to transfer and excess applications, schools must be able to consider internal and external hires equally no later than the middle of April. Accelerating these processes will often require changes to contractual timelines, as well as human-resource-process improvements.

Better protect novice teachers who are contributing to their current schools.

If a school wants to keep a junior teacher, and the teacher wants to stay, another teacher should never be able to bump him or her. Even in the face of staffing cuts, schools should have some discretion to keep essential, high-performing novice teachers. Otherwise, a school’s effort to build an effective instructional team and sustain improvements will be thwarted.

Reform evaluation and dismissal processes and provide new rewards for service.

Teacher-evaluation and -dismissal reforms must also be considered carefully so that teachers have ample due process, but not protection for incompetence. There is an additional pressing need for better rewards for effective experienced teachers besides school placements without mutual consent.

The good news is that these reforms are within reach. In fact, New York City (one of the districts we studied) has adopted a new teachers’ contract that eliminates seniority-transfer rules and bumping rights, as well as the forcing of transferring and excessed teachers onto other schools without their consent.

Our proposed reforms will not magically resolve all of the barriers urban schools face in staffing their classrooms with high-quality teachers. Without revamping these staffing rules, however, another generation of urban students will bear the cost of well-intentioned, but ultimately inadequate, school improvement efforts.


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