Assessment Opinion

Is Seniority for Teachers Bad for Students?

By Anthony Cody — November 03, 2012 5 min read
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Yesterday’s post challenging the ability of some education reform “liberals” to shed core values such as support for unions, desegregation and the institution of public education apparently hit some sensitive nerves. In particular, Chris Arnold, whom we recently saw praising the “parent trigger” movie “Won’t Back Down,” took me on via Twitter. You may recall that Mr. Arnold caught some flak for initially failing to disclose his affiliation with The New Teacher Project, a Gates-funded non-profit that has pushed hard for “reforms” in teacher evaluation.

In an exchange that took place over the past 24 hours, he asked me:

How do students (or teachers) benefit from seniority-based, quality-blind layoffs and rigid, factory era pay systems?

It is tough to answer such a question in 140 characters or less, so I am going to offer an extended answer here.

To answer this question, we have to look at the alternatives to seniority and due process, and the reason these systems were developed in the first place. Seniority provides a degree of security to people based on when they were hired. Since pay rises with experience, there is an incentive to lay off more senior teachers. Administrators might also be motivated to play favorites when making these decisions, if given the opportunity.

What are the benefits seniority provides?

Seniority combined with due process gives teachers a degree of freedom to speak their minds, and exercise some autonomy over their classrooms. This helps students because it allows teachers to be more creative. It allows the school to be a more democratic place, where teachers can speak out about issues the school faces. This also has the effect of encouraging people to invest in teaching as a career. Once they have established themselves at a school or in a district, they have some security. In the school where I taught for 18 years, there used to be teachers who had been there for twenty or thirty years. They had a different set of gifts from those of the youthful novices, but they were of great value nonetheless. They carried the school’s culture, the history of the place. We had a sense of family, and they were our elders. They served as mentors, and helped us through some tough times. They brought a sense of stability, and taught generations of children from the families of our community. As research has shown, stability is very important for our students, and instability undermines student performance. Many of our students face instability in their home lives. It is crucial that our schools serve as stable oases for them, rather than echoing the chaos that sometimes reigns in their neighborhoods.

What does “quality-blind lay-offs” mean?

To discuss this, we need to be clear about the alternative that Mr. Arnold has in mind. The New Teacher Project has been actively promoting the use of test scores to evaluate teachers. He can correct me if I am wrong, but the alternative to “quality-blind lay-offs” is the creation of a ranking system to lay people off based on their “effectiveness” at raising test scores, usually using some form of Value-Added Method (VAM). This is most certainly bad for students in a number of ways. To understand why, take a look at the research done by Dr. Linda Darling-Hammond - once a supporter of the use of VAM. Her investigations reveal the following:

First, test-score gains--even using very fancy value-added models--reflect much more than an individual teacher's effort, including students' health, home life, and school attendance, and schools' class sizes, curriculum materials, and administrative supports, as well as the influence of other teachers, tutors, and specialists. These factors differ widely in rich and poor schools.
Second, teachers' ratings are highly unstable: They differ substantially across classes, tests, and years. Teachers who rank at the bottom one year are more likely to rank above average the following year than to rate poorly again. The same holds true for teachers at the top. If the scores truly measured a teacher's ability, these wild swings would not occur.
Third, teachers who rate highest on the low-level multiple-choice tests currently in use are often not those who raise scores on assessments of more-challenging learning. Pressure to teach to these fill-in-the-bubble tests will further reduce the focus on research, writing, and complex problem-solving, areas where students will need to compete with their peers in high-achieving countries.
But, most importantly, these test scores largely reflect whom a teacher teaches, not how well they teach. In particular, teachers show lower gains when they have large numbers of new English-learners and students with disabilities than when they teach other students. This is true even when statistical methods are used to "control" for student characteristics.

This is all clearly bad for students. What teacher will choose to work these difficult populations when it could mean a disastrous end to their career? The result will be teachers will seek to avoid the neediest students, and these students will not be well-served.

And our students are being very poorly served by a system that revolves entirely around test scores. They are getting the message that learning equals answering a series of multiple choice or short answer questions, and their instruction is ever-more finely focused on these all-important tests.

I also think there is room for improvement in teacher evaluations. I worked with others to prepare the Accomplished California Teachers report “A Quality Teacher in Every Classroom,” which provided detailed examples and recommendations. Teachers should receive feedback from administrators and peers -- but the process should not be dominated by test score data.

How about “rigid, factory-era pay systems”?

Once again, we need to remember why these systems were created, and also consider carefully the alternatives that are on the table. In the past, elementary teachers were almost all women, and they received significantly less than high school teachers. The pay systems were developed to provide a fairer system, that honored both education level and experience. There is certainly some room for improvement, recognizing the different roles teachers now play in a school. However, once again, we have to look critically at the systems The New Teacher Project has been promoting, many of which include connecting pay to student test scores. This approach yields most of the negative consequences we see from using test scores for evaluative purposes, and thus is likewise bad for students.

There is a reason that states (and nations like Finland) with strong teacher unions tend to have better education systems. When we invest in schools, and give teachers a sense that their experience and expertise is honored, that they will have academic freedom and autonomy in the classroom, they are happier with their work. They stick with it, and are driven, not by a fear that their students’ scores will be low resulting in the loss of pay or job security. They are driven by their passion to inspire their students with new challenges, to create outstanding work, to investigate the world around them in new ways. This sort of teaching is not the product of some perfectly aligned testing and evaluation system. It is the product of the passion for teaching and learning that drew so many of us to work with children in the first place.

What do you think? Is seniority good or bad for students? How about using test scores or VAM ratings to determine who is laid off?

Dialogue with me on Twitter at @AnthonyCody

The opinions expressed in Living in Dialogue are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.