Teaching Profession

N.C. District Lets Go of Veteran Teachers, But Keeps TFA Hires

By Stephen Sawchuk — June 12, 2009 5 min read

Faced with a yawning budget gap, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board last week approved plans to let go of hundreds of teachers, basing that decision on the teachers’ low performance on evaluations, rather than on their seniority.

Even more controversially, the 134,000-student North Carolina district granted an exemption to teachers hired through the Teach For America recruiting program who meet teaching standards over more-senior teachers, and it is poised to hire more TFA alumni.

Those decisions are raising the ire of local and national teachers’ groups and have reopened philosophical debates about the merits of the selective TFA program, which places top graduates in some of the nation’s most challenging schools.

“What message are you sending to a young person we need to keep in the profession who has no performance issues, who chose to become an educator ... to replace them with someone who’s had five weeks [of training] and didn’t choose education to begin with?” said Richard Miller, the deputy director of the North Carolina Association of Educators, an affiliate of the National Education Association.

But members of the district’s school board said the decision was influenced by several factors, including the desire to maintain a contract with TFA and an overall sense that the teachers are doing well by their students.

“The idea was that we have a relationship with these folks who are in the toughest schools and situations,” said James L. Ross II, a school board member. “We could build that long-term if these people can stick around.”

A second school board member, Tom Tate, added, “We seem to be getting good results from these teachers generally.”

‘Discriminatory’ Practice?

Teacher layoffs aren’t an unusual phenomenon these days, with revenue streams continuing to shrink and state and local officials across the country still wrangling over the purpose of federal education-stimulus funds. Despite some recent objections to the practice, layoffs—or “reductions in force”—largely still follow seniority policies set by local collective bargaining contracts or state law. (“Layoff Policies Could Diminish Teacher Reform,” Feb. 25, 2009.)

North Carolina is one of a handful of “right to work” states where collective bargaining is not sanctioned and RIF policies are controlled by school districts.

Earlier this spring, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg board approved a new RIF policy that put a heavier focus on performance.

The policy directs the district not to renew any teachers whose licenses are not current, those who do not meet minimum standards on local evaluation instruments, part-time teachers, and retired teachers who have returned to teaching. After that, it exempts TFA teachers and a handful of others in shortage subject areas, such as math, science, and foreign languages, over traditionally certified teachers with more seniority or equally high performance ratings.

Overall, the cuts are aimed at non-tenured teachers, who have four or fewer years of experience.

Complicating matters, Mr. Miller and national union officials allege that Superintendent Peter Gorman plans to hire additional TFA teachers for 2009-10, rather than giving priority to teachers who are receiving pink slips.

“The letter of the law may be that teachers are at-will [employees], but they are playing with a lot of teachers’ careers,” John I. Wilson, the executive director of the NEA, said of the district’s management. “TFA teachers should not be treated differently from any other teachers. I think it’s discriminatory.”

Ideally, Mr. Wilson added, no first-year teachers should work in schools with high numbers of disadvantaged students, and each TFA teacher would work alongside a veteran before becoming a classroom “teacher of record.”

Education Week could not confirm hiring plans with Mr. Gorman or other central-office officials, who did not respond to multiple inquiries seeking comment. But Mr. Tate, the school board member, said the district does hope to hire additional TFA teachers for the coming school year—and to recall some laid-off teachers—if the budget situation improves.

Meanwhile, a source with knowledge of the district’s plans confirmed that it is eyeing a figure of 100 new TFA teachers.

Still, a top TFA official said the district’s hiring plans may be separate from the layoffs.

“It’s not that uncommon for districts to reduce force in particular areas or subject matter ... and still need to hire teachers in other areas,” said Kevin Huffman, the executive vice president of the New York City-based group. “I think this notion that if you reduce teachers, then you shouldn’t be hiring new teachers, that’s not historically the way that’s played out. Districts every year look at where they need teachers, and TFA is one of the sources for those hires.”

According to a survey conducted by the organization, more than 90 percent of Charlotte principals with TFA staff members said that such teachers made a positive impact and that they would hire others if given the opportunity, said Tim Hurley, the executive director of the Charlotte TFA program.

The unions are closely watching the development. In an e-mail, Mr. Wilson of the NEA called on affiliates to report instances in which districts appear to be laying off veterans and hiring TFA graduates.

In New York City, which has a mutual-consent placement policy for new and transferred teachers, officials have teetered on the edge of the matter. District administrators there have said they are not officially giving priority to TFA teachers in hiring, but they are encouraging principals to consider hiring such teachers first.

To Kate Walsh, the president of the National Council on Teacher Quality, a Washington-based group that has generally supported TFA and other nontraditional routes to the classroom, the program’s popularity with administrators is a telling sign.

“If I were a union, I’d be upset, too, but the more productive way to channel that upset is to begin addressing what separates [TFA recruits from other] teachers,” Ms. Walsh said. “The unions need to be asking themselves why is it superintendents would even consider a strategy which looks so patently unfair to veteran teachers.

“They’ve got to come to grips with the fact that TFA is clearly bringing something to the table,” she said, “that other teachers do not appear to be bringing.”

A version of this article appeared in the June 17, 2009 edition of Education Week as N.C. District Lets Go of Veteran Teachers, But Keeps TFA Hires

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