Opinion
School & District Management Opinion

When School Improvement and Teacher Seniority Collide

By Rob Manwaring & Tim Sullivan — October 08, 2010 5 min read

The Obama administration is investing $3.5 billion to turn around some of the country’s lowest-performing schools, awarding up to $6 million over three years to each. This fall, many schools that have received funds are replacing principals, and at least some teachers, in an effort to reverse what are in some cases cultures of failure. But unless newly hired teachers are protected from the rigid seniority policies of states and school districts, many of these improvement efforts will fail, and the money will be wasted. Worse, the public may wrongly conclude that these schools can’t be saved.

As a former principal of a middle school in the low-income Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles, one of this essay’s authors, Tim Sullivan, is all too aware of the damage that can occur when school turnaround efforts and teacher-seniority policies collide.

In May 2008, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s Partnership for Los Angeles Schools took control of Markham Middle School from the Los Angeles Unified School District and instituted reforms utilizing one of the four turnaround models now being advocated by the Obama administration. Markham was one of the lowest-performing schools in the state, with only 10 percent of its 8th graders proficient in English, and 2 percent proficient in algebra.

As part of the turnaround, the partnership hired Tim, along with a new teaching staff, and required the school’s existing teachers to reapply for their jobs. In the fall of 2008, the school opened a fresh chapter under new management, and with mostly new staff. Most of the teachers were young, optimistic, and energetic. Unfortunately, neither the teachers nor the enthusiasm lasted long.

In the spring of that first school year, budget cuts hit Los Angeles Unified hard. The district sent out layoff notices to 9,000 employees, around 10 percent of the staff. Since Markham Middle School was not exempt from the district policy that requires that the last hired be the first fired, virtually all of its dynamic young staff members, including the principal, were handed pink slips. Although the district was later able to rehire most of the teachers who had been laid off elsewhere, the cuts of new staffers at Markham remained. The school was devastated. All told, Markham lost about half its staff—cuts so destabilizing that they completely undermined the partnership’s reform effort.

The second year, Tim’s leadership team started hiring again. But instead of being able to hire the teachers he wanted, he was required to hire from the district’s displaced-teacher pool—senior teachers who had been let go by other schools. Just before school started, Tim and his team interviewed 24 candidates in a four-hour district-hosted job fair. The school offered contracts to 21 of those candidates. Only two of the teachers accepted the offer, and of the 19 who rejected it, 15 had not even bothered to visit the school.

So, Markham started the school year relying on long-term substitutes to fill many of the still-vacant positions. Many were not equipped or qualified to head any classroom. But because of the seniority policies, the school’s hands were tied. And, come spring of the second year under partnership management, almost half the school’s staff was laid off again in the next round of district budget cuts.

Markham Middle School was hit by a perfect storm—the need to radically improve a hard-to-staff school, severe budget cuts, and unreasonable hiring policies. It’s a storm that will be hitting similar schools all over the country in the next couple of years unless policymakers change state laws and district policies. The end of federal stimulus funding, combined with continuing weaknesses in state and local economies, means that scores of districts will be cutting budgets and laying off teachers. And unless seniority policies change, those layoffs will destroy other turnaround efforts as surely as they stalled the reforms at Markham.

Districts need to make layoff decisions based on teacher effectiveness, not seniority. But neither districts nor states have yet developed evaluation systems that accurately and completely measure awareness.

The policy failures that played out at Markham, and at two other schools in the district, were so blatant that they prompted a lawsuit against the district and the state by the American Civil Liberties Union. The recent settlement of this suit will largely protect Markham and 44 other low-performing schools in the district from mass layoffs in the future. But the decision will not protect the staffs at the roughly 1,000 low-performing schools that the federal School Improvement Grants are targeting elsewhere.

School districts need to make layoff decisions based on measures of teacher effectiveness, not seniority. But neither districts nor states have yet developed evaluation systems that accurately and completely measure teacher effectiveness, and the policy debate continues on whether value-added test data should play a role in evaluations. The current batch of schools that are undergoing turnarounds can’t wait for these evaluation improvements. School districts and state and federal governments need to act now to protect turnarounds at our lowest-performing schools.

At the federal level, President Barack Obama has proposed an additional $900 million for School Improvement Grants. Historically, these funds have been distributed according to a prescribed formula, but Congress should change the eligibility requirement, so that states and districts will have a mandate to protect their lowest-performing schools from teacher-seniority policies.

In the last legislative session in California, Democrat Darrell Steinberg, the state Senate’s president pro tempore, authored legislation illustrating how such a provision might work. The bill would have restricted teacher layoffs at low-performing schools to the average teacher layoffs of the whole district. So, if budget cuts required the district to lay off 5 percent of its staff members, a low-performing school could only lose up to 5 percent of its staff as well. This may seem like a small change, but had the legislation been in place in 2008, Markham Middle School would have lost only a few teachers to budget cuts, instead of 35.

While state Sen. Steinberg was able to move the bill through his own house, the powerful California Teachers Association proved too strong a foe of the measure, ensuring its defeat in the state Assembly. This bill was the latest in the skirmishing between Steinberg and the CTA. And one of the key lawmakers who helped kill the bill was Assembly Member Tom Torlakson, a candidate for state superintendent backed by the union.

So as the state distributes its share of the $3.5 billion in School Improvement Grant funding ($416 million) this fall, and as more layoffs loom, it is entirely likely that the reform efforts made possible with this federal investment could be for naught by the spring.

A version of this article appeared in the October 13, 2010 edition of Education Week as When School Improvement and Teacher Seniority Collide

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