Teaching Profession

Districts Targeting Teacher Seniority In Union Contracts

By Jeff Archer — April 12, 2000 8 min read

The qualifications Meira Levinson brought with her to the Boston public schools this school year speak for themselves: an undergraduate degree from an Ivy League college, an Oxford doctorate in political theory, and three years’ experience teaching at an Atlanta middle school.

And yet the 8th grade social studies teacher at McCormack Middle School also is something of a sitting duck.

Because Ms. Levinson, 29, is still considered a “provisional” teacher in Boston, a veteran educator in the system could, under terms of the local teachers’ contract, transfer into her school and take her position, leaving her to be assigned another classroom.

“I’ve devoted an immense amount of time to prepping for my class this year,” she said recently. “And all of that has absolutely no bearing on whether I will have a job teaching 8th grade social studies, or even whether I will have a job at my school.”

Her predicament—faced by hundreds of educators new to her district—underscores the potential side effects of teachers’ seniority rights. Now, though, district officials in Boston, Los Angeles, and Kansas City, Mo., are pushing to scale back provisions in their labor agreements that give deference to senior staff in getting job assignments. The Milwaukee, St. Paul, Minn., and Seattle districts have already done so.

Of Another Era?

While the defenders of seniority rights see them as needed protection against cronyism and a deserved reward for sticking with a system, critics of such rights—including some union leaders—argue that they run counter to the current thinking on school improvement. Schools under the gun to show increased student achievement, they say, should be able to assemble the best teams of teachers they can, regardless of their years of experience.

“Seniority has served as a clear and objective way for making difficult staffing decisions, particularly about layoffs in times of enrollment declines,” said Susan Moore Johnson, a professor at Harvard University’s graduate school of education. “Now, we’re in a period where we don’t have layoffs to contend with, we anticipate tremendous growth and bringing in lots of new teachers, and there is a focus on standards and school improvement that is very school-based.”

While few districts would dare attempt to eliminate one of the hallmarks of unionism—"first hired, last fired"—or the role that seniority plays in determining salaries, increased attention is being paid to its impact on the assignment of teachers to specific schools and classrooms.

In Boston, the issue of teachers’ seniority rights surfaced during contract talks with the release last month of a report by the Boston Plan for Excellence, a nonprofit group that promotes school improvement. The report makes the case that, although the rule of seniority isn’t absolute in the 64,000-student district, it plays enough of a role in the hiring process to work against the agenda to upgrade schools.

Veteran educators can bump first-year teachers who are still considered provisional. Moreover, by giving tenured teachers first crack at open positions within the system, the hiring process leaves teachers new to the district waiting until late in the game to get an assignment. As a result, the Boston group argues, suburban systems with more flexible contracts are better able to snatch up new recruits.

All of that makes it harder for schools to follow through with Boston’s blueprint for districtwide improvement, said John K. DiPaolo, the Boston Plan’s policy director. That design envisions each school adopting its own set of instructional strategies to which all of its staff members are committed, he said. The group helped district leaders design the improvement plan.

“This is a contract from an era when it might have been plausible to regard teachers as interchangeable from one school to another,” Mr. DiPaolo said. “But it doesn’t make any sense in an era when school-level teams are defining a focus, determining strategies, and building shared expertise in those strategies.”

Mr. Dipaolo’s organization recommends allowing principal-led committees at each school to determine whom to hire, no matter the candidate’s seniority.

Power Shifts

A growing number of districts are already doing that. A highly innovative contract approved in 1997 in Seattle removed most seniority privileges for district educators, and allowed teams of teachers and administrators at each school to choose new hires.

“We wanted to make sure people can hire those who best complement what it is they are trying to do,” said Roger A. Erskine, the executive director of the Seattle Education Association, a National Education Association affiliate. “The whole effort was to try to put as much of the decisionmaking with the people closest to the delivery of service.”

School districts in Columbus, Ohio, and, more recently, Milwaukee and St. Paul have similarly limited the impact of seniority on transfers, and with the support of the local union in each case. Although they lose some of the benefits that had been tied to years of experience, many teachers say they appreciate the authority they gain by having a say in the personnel their schools choose.

“The teachers feel much more empowered,” said Pat O’Mahar, a spokesman for the Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association, another NEA affiliate.

But a proposal by district officials in Los Angeles to limit the role of seniority in giving classroom assignments has prompted an angry response from the local teachers’ union.

Interim Superintendent Ramon C. Cortines argues that provisions in the current contract often let new teachers wind up with the most difficult classes. Many national experts worry that inequities in student achievement are exacerbated when inexperienced teachers are given the toughest assignments.

In Los Angeles, teachers can essentially bid for classroom assignments in their schools—so long as they hold the appropriate credentials—based on seniority. As a result, Mr. Cortines said, a new teacher can be bumped by a more senior educator.

“There has got to be a balance,” the superintendent said. “I want to recognize someone who has been on the job for 15 or 20 years, but I also want to recognize, retain, and motivate those who are brand-new.”

Union leaders in the 680,000-student district contend that seniority alone does not decide classroom assignment, but they also say some deference to length of service is needed to protect against favoritism.

“The principal does get to make the assignment; seniority is given heavy consideration,” said Day Higuchi, the president of United Teachers Los Angeles, which includes members of both the NEA and the American Federation of Teachers. “The district is in some ways setting up a straw man here—this has not been a big problem.”

Social studies teacher Joshua Pechthalt, a 17-year veteran of the Los Angeles district, said he supports seniority rights, even though three years ago he lost a course he taught on Latin-American and African-American history to a more senior educator who had transferred to his school.

“Workers fought for seniority rights because there was a problem with managers trying to curry favor with certain folks,” said Mr. Pechthalt, who sits on the union’s board. “And that certainly hasn’t gone away.”

UTLA leaders especially balk at the idea of limiting seniority without giving teachers more say in who is hired at their schools. The district has not proposed creating the kind of hiring teams used in Seattle, according to the UTLA.

Waiting To Exhale

Union officials in Boston say they’ve made concessions on seniority rights in recent years, but resist the idea of scaling them back further.

Seniority once ruled supreme for nearly all transfers within the system, but now, it mostly affects so-called excess transfers, said Edward Doherty, the president of the Boston Teachers Union, an AFT local. Those result most often when a veteran teacher’s position is cut because of program restructuring. Even in such cases, a senior teacher is not guaranteed a specific assignment, but rather one of three he or she has selected.

Although all positions held by first-year provisional teachers are fair game for qualified veterans to take, the Boston contract incorporates ways for principals to designate their favorite provisional teachers as tenured teachers who cannot be bumped, Mr. Doherty maintained.

“They’re trying to have it both ways,” he said. “They want to say, ‘We want to protect these people, they’re part of a team, and we don’t want them bumped out by a person who may not want to be on the team,’ and on the other hand, they’re not confident enough in the new teachers to make them permanent.”

Muriel J. Leonard, Meira Levinson’s principal, says she would love to give tenure to the Ivy League-educated teacher, but can’t because she doesn’t yet hold a state license for teaching social studies. She has a general license for teaching middle school in Massachusetts, but the contract won’t permit her to become permanent until she’s also licensed in her subject, the principal said.

“I’m going to have to hold my breath and wait for the transfer process to be over before I can offer her another contract,” said Ms. Leonard, adding that such situations are not unusual. “Another person would take her Ph.D. and go work in a suburban system.”

Ms. Levinson took the state test to become certified in social studies last month, but not in time to keep her position from being considered vacant in the transfer process. “There’s nothing about teaching itself that would drive me from the profession,” Ms. Levinson said, “but certain rules like this might.”

A version of this article appeared in the April 12, 2000 edition of Education Week as Districts Targeting Teacher Seniority In Union Contracts


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