Teaching Profession

UPDATED: Will Reforms to Seniority Catch On?

By Stephen Sawchuk — October 26, 2009 2 min read

Rhode Island Commissioner Deborah Gist has instructed districts to work to eliminate hiring practices based on seniority provisions when the districts’ collective bargaining agreements come up for renewal this year. (Hat Tip to Eduwonk.) She wants hiring to be based on performance-based criteria instead.

So Teacher Beat asks the question: Is seniority poised to emerge as a major reform priority?

We’re seeing efforts to experiment with a lot of traditional structures that affect teacher quality, like compensation, professional development, and evaluation. And even though no one seems ready to chuck out tenure, the conversations around evaluation could make the tenure-granting process a more meaningful one.

So far, though, seniority has been mostly ignored. For instance, the New Haven contract is being held up by union, district, and federal officials alike as a model effort for collaborative reform. But a few people have written me to point out that, even in the “turnaround” charter-like schools, teachers would maintain their transfer rights. That means teachers who aren’t rehired by their principals or choose to leave the schools after the two-year commitment can bid on positions based on seniority. UPDATED: There appears to be some language in the contract that gives the board the ability to staff based on the instructional needs of the school before seniority kicks in. Working to get some clarification on what that means in practice.

And practically all districts still use the system for things like layoffs, even if they’ve done away with seniority-based transfers.

The argument, as it’s been explained to me, is that seniority is way of ensuring that teachers are treated fairly, since there’s an objective rather than a subjective method of deciding who gets raises and privileges. But the definition of “fair” is sort of in the eyes of the beholder. Seniority doesn’t, for instance, take teacher effectiveness into account into things like pay or layoffs, presumably a difficult thing for teachers with fewer years of experience.

But efforts to use performance-based criteria in instances such as reductions-in-force have been quite controversial. (Witness the District of Columbia or Charlotte, N.C.)

So what do you think? Is seniority still necessary as the push continues to define teacher quality in terms of student learning? Or do we risk making things even worse in school or returning to the days when it was easier for boards and principals to play favorites?

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Teacher Beat blog.