When School Improvement, Seniority and Talking Points Collide

by: michael in chicago

Sun Oct 17, 2010 at 11:00


(From one of our most knowledgeable commentators in the weekly "Left Ed" series. - promoted by Paul Rosenberg)

In their recent article at Ed Week, Rob Manwaring and Tim Sullivan pen a nice article that makes is clear just how terrible seniority clauses in teacher contracts are. In "When School Improvement and Teacher Seniority Collide" (subscription required) Manwaring and Sullivan paint a bleak picture of how as a principal of a failing school in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles, Sullivan became "all too aware of the damage that can occur" due to seniority.

But even as the article hammers "senior teachers" between the lines as the cause of for failure, the repeated nature of the problem is glossed over and ignored.

michael in chicago :: When School Improvement, Seniority and Talking Points Collide
In the wake of the take over of Markham Middle School, one of the lowest performing schools in the state, Sullivan was hired as principal and tasked with turning around the school. Of course, this was done by firing the entire staff:

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.

Note the structure of the first sentence: Sullivan was hired along with all new teachers - then the teaching staff was allowed to apply for their jobs. Not surprisingly, the new staff didn't include many of the senior teachers, but instead mostly "young, optimistic and energetic" new teachers.

This is a dog whistle for an education reformist's core belief:

Young Teacher = Good Teacher
Old Teacher = Bad Teacher

In reality, the only way a young teacher is always a better teacher is in the free market belief that education should be run like a business - including having a profit motif. Young teacher = cheap teacher. Old teacher = expensive teacher.

So the restructure circumvents seniority rights, and a new less experienced and less costly staff is put in place in what can probably be argued as one of the more demanding teaching environments in the nation.

But then budget cuts rock Los Angeles Unified, and the district decides to release  approximately 10% of its teachers at the end of the school year.  The recession came home to roost as unemployment rose, tax revenues dropped and the housing bubble collapsed. So naturally the problem is: Seniority?

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.

There are so many talking points here, so allow me to unpack this a bit:

A "displaced teacher pool" sounds so blatantly negative, as if this was some band of teachers who had been "let go" for performance problems. In reality what such a "pool" most often refers to regarding seniority rights is a pool of candidates that had previously been employed with the district and were released due to something non-classroom related - declining enrollment, budgetary constraints or the like. In other words teachers released not due to anything under their control or related to their performance.

So why not just re-hire the Markham teachers that were released? Seniority is the blame, according to the authors! But is it really? Note that even though the school released half its teachers, it rehired for the start of the next year. The unrealistic budget cuts and associated decision to pink slip teachers is the real cause of the trouble  here, not seniority.

Not surprisingly, when teachers get pink slipped for reasons like this, they tend to go and find positions in other districts rather than subject themselves to the uncertainty again. This is more likely the reason that 19 of the candidates offered contracts didn't accept them let alone visit the school. They most likely left the district (and/or the profession), and moved on to another position.

Teachers in the pool are there because they retain a property right to an open position having been released for non-performance reasons months prior. I don't know about you, but most people I know start looking for a new job immediately rather than just sitting around hoping to be recalled by their former employer. Yet the author tries to imply that the "senior teachers" exhibited incompetence through  their lack of visiting the school and turning down a contract.

It's far more likely these teachers didn't want to work in an environment that the author admits is "hard to staff" and in which the faculty was thrown out in a restructure, replaced with younger cheaper teachers, half of whom were then let go after only one year in yet another round of reactionary budget cuts.

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.

Here we have more leaps of misplaced causation. One of the primary roles of an administrator is staffing. The explanation given here is essentially this: We couldn't hire who we wanted due to those damaging seniority rights, so we had to start the year with terribly unqualified subs.

Let's lay the blame where is belongs: unrealistic budget cuts first, the administrator in charge of hiring second. The first question to ask is why did the district release all those inexperienced and cheap young and energetic teachers, only to have to rehire before the next school year? The second question to ask is why did the administrator in charge start the hiring process "just before school started"? Unlike other fields, education has a definitive window when the best applicant pool is available.

For those outside education here's a hint: Just before school isn't within that window.

Seniority rights normally don't restrict when administrators can interview. They only require administrators to offer contracts to those experienced teachers on the seniority list. They also don't require those contract offers to linger indefinitely. If the contract is not accepted, then other offers can be made further down the list. If the offer is made right before school starts, then hiring is going to be more than bit difficult and seniority has nothing to do with it.

But seniority rights do get in the way of an administrator hand picking their staff. It makes it hard for them to replace "senior" teachers who cost more with the younger cheaper ones. It really cramps an administrator's ability to fill positions out of political patronage or to getting rid of teachers with the wrong ideas or orientations.

The cause of staffing issues at Markham was not due to seniority rights. The cause was due to the way education is funded in this nation, how this funding is being threatened by state's budget crisis, and education "reforms" pushed by those outside the classroom attempting to make those in the classroom the scapegoats for all problems that surround education systemically.


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sometimes but not always (4.00 / 2)
young teacher = lower teacher pay
older teacher = higher teacher pay

School is not a business; it is not about profit, but about learning about yourself, the world and the current state of human knowledge.

I don't know what's in people's heads anymore. What do they want? Life in caves?

I wish there was an ability/compassion/passion metric that could be applied to potential new employees where the teaching of children and young adults was concerned.

Anyone who teaches, provides healthcare or pursues science or art strictly for the money needs to look elsewhere for their "special purpose." Conversely, if you are engaged in one of these occupations, don't feel guilty if you do, through some happy accident of nature, happen to make a decent living.


Yes, We Need to Fund Schools More (4.00 / 1)
I live in Oregon where we pool our taxes statewide and fund schools equally per student.  It's a great level-playing field and I am happy to live in a state that decided all of our kids are worth funding.  

The drawback? Our state's tax structure is terribly inconsistent. Many years, schools are seriously underfunded and do all kinds of drastic things to survive.  Reducing staff and administration. Closing schools. Killing the art and music programs.  Letting go of the librarian.  Outsourcing school buses.  

But we now have a Republican ex-pro basketball player running for governor, so things should get better soon.


Amazing (4.00 / 1)
I'd be curious what the parents of the Markham school think of all this. Did they have any say? Probably not since parents really don't exist to reformers, let alone their kids. I also wonder if anyone wrote the journalist who wrote this piece to educate them on their mistakes?

As a business person, I'm also amazed at the initial reaction to fire experienced teachers. That's the main asset of any school, regardless of whether the experienced teacher is good or bad. If you fire a teacher, you get rid of a critical asset to turning around a school (because sooner or later you have to hire them back, or someone like them, as this article proves). Better, and easier, to start with a focus on getting more funds and reducing costs outside of teacher salaries. That's Business 101: don't gut your core assets. The Markham principal has a very simplistic, inexperienced view of how to manage a business (aka school).

As a parent of public school kids, I'm amazed at the disconnect between what goes on in our lives and our local schools and what goes on with charter schools and national educational policy. There's a massive disconnect. Indeed, the only connection is funding. And I'd also think the reformers are thrilled we have a President and a Republican party that don't believe in Keynesian stimulus funding to, among other things, make up state budget shortfalls to keep schools funded. It's almost as if they want the system to fail so they can swoop in and make it fail again.

Meanwhile, in the real world, parents and their kids and their teachers bump along.


Exactly! (0.00 / 0)
"It's almost as if they want the system to fail so they can swoop in and make it fail again."

Because the logic of what the reformists push is so suspect it makes you want to question their intentions.

Save Our Schools! March & National Call to Action, July 28-31, 2011 in Washington, DC: http://www.saveourschoolsmarch...


[ Parent ]
I have seen this game played (4.00 / 4)
in so many ways, in so many districts. I am in CO and I was luckily in one of the few districts with a master agreement and collective bargaining (I am now retired).  Considering this is one of the most conservative communities in the USA, it is quite a feat.  They tried to break us in my second year of teaching here, back in 1975, but we struck and held strong.  Considering how the pro business communities here were busing in scabs from all over the state, I am still amazed at how we held together.  I had no tenure and I walked because I believe that scapegoating teachers is wrong.
This community had not raised the mill levy for years and years here...in fact for the first 25 plus years I was here...finally in 1999 they passed one.  By that time, schools had roofs that were leaking so bad, sometimes there were twenty buckets in a hallway.

It's all about greed.  Why hire "expensive" teachers with Master's degrees when you can get a new, just out of college, newbie so cheap, and fire them after three years, just before tenure.  Our rural neighbors were doing that for years here.

The mentality of too many progressives, I fear, though lie with the Arne Duncans of the world.  Put dollar signs on kids because there is a profit to be made.  That's what charter school investors see and the public, even the progressive public, is being spun to scapegoat teachers' unions.

Sad, and potentially tragic.


An organization motivated to accomplish a mission (4.00 / 2)
as laid out in a mission statement will always look inefficient to people who manage businesses that can pick and choose the customers who pay the most profit.

Government cannot choose its target market. Governments are responsible for everyone in the geographic area they govern. Business, however, can pick and choose their target market and then streamline their delivery of goods and services to match that particular market. A good comparison is FEDEX and UPS vs the postal service. The postal service will deliver the mail almost literally anywhere. Try getting that with the private companies that skim the most profitable cream off the market.

Or health insurance. Age is a preexisting condition, which is why no insurance company offered health insurance to anyone after they reached age 65. If you had health insurance, it was canceled when you reached age 65. The government was forced to offer Medicare. Medicare advantage could not be started until the government offered extra funding for the private companies offering the private plans, and those plans are a lot less convenient to use.

Now compare mass public education to privately funded charter schools. The outcomes are not better for charter schools, but the profits for the owners are. Go to a charter system and special education will disappear. So will educating any difficult students (of the kind the Catholic school in my home town kicked out and sent to public school.)

Saving money on public education is long term disaster economically and socially. So is using the public school system as a patronage machine as so often happens when the wrong clique gets control of the school board.

Listening to any libertarian under any circumstances is simply stupidity squared. Libertarianism is a dangerous and infectious meme that should be stamped out like Polio or smallpox.  


[ Parent ]
Obviously the administrator lacks knowledge of the business (4.00 / 2)
The thing about teaching is that the central individuals involved are the teachers themselves. They are responsible for student contact. And students do not come in nice, neat little uniform packages like plastic-wrapped widgets.

Someone does not get to be a teachers overnight - or they shouldn't. It's not like the school administrators can step out the school door and find a mob of qualified applicants ghosting their door begging for jobs.

Teaching is a profession for which there has to be long preparation and a great deal of certification. It requires a dedicated and motivated person to undergo the process of preparing to teach. That motivation is going to be stronger or weaker depending on the likelihood that teaching jobs will exist when the preparation process is completed.

The business factory model with a mobile supply of easily hired and fired labor (who naturally become very subservient) simply does not apply to schools. Teachers have to be long term professionals with their own ethics and motivations.

Unfortunately, the system of local school boards gives the purse strings to a group of unprofessional activists who get the job largely because they want to change things they don't understand. Administrators have to cater to these yahoos, and so they ignore the professionals who work for them. This drives professional teachers to have to organize to defend themselves or to leave the profession.

Since organized professional teachers defend themselves and their profession from the ignorant yahoos of the school board and their hired lackeys, the administrators, the teachers unions catch a lot of flack. But the fact is that teachers unions are a necessity for any system that uses amateur school board members to control the budget. The frustration is built into the system on both sides.

As a parent with a child in special ed this became quickly obvious. I had a kid with special needs - not a cookie-cutter approach. The teachers were invariably competent and helpful. But if a situation required resources controlled by the administrators, the administrators invariably considered me a threat before I ever walked in the door and were invariably obstructive. Several times my best solution was to move to a different school district. My best luck was moving to a school district in a university town where many of the teachers were putting their spouses through grad school, so they were professional and easy to work with. The district catered to the university, not to that political yahoos.

But it helped that when I moved there and enrolled my child I "lost" all his prior records en route, too. The new start was very useful.

The American business model is guaranteed to completely fail when applied to mass education. The big problem is the role that administrators expect to play. They think they are the boss because they sign the checks. They fail to realize that their function is to support the teachers and focus the schools on the students entirely.

Oh, and in Texas football should be outlawed as a criminal misuse of eduction funds.  


Good point about school boards (4.00 / 1)
Imagine a corporation with a multi-million dollar budget that had it's board of directors chosen by a few hundred votes cast by individuals in the local community who by and large have little or no expertise in the field the corporation was doing business in, choosing from potential board members with equally little experience and expertise in the corporation's market.

That's how we run schools in America. No corporation would stand for this, nor survive with this model.

If teaching is so easy, then by all means get your degree, pass your certification test(s), get your license, and see if you can last longer than the five years in the classroom 50% of those who enter the profession never make it to.


[ Parent ]
Thanks Paul (4.00 / 2)
I appreciate the promotion and your giving this a wider audience.

The whole point to my writing these is that for those outside education it is very easy to be mislead by what appear to be rational arguments made by educational reformists. The only way to keep these arguments from being accepted as conventional wisdom is to explain just how misleading many of their arguments are.

As presented in the article the concept of seniority rights is directly equated with protecting poor performing teachers when in fact there is no connection  - especially when seniority lists and recall rights are for teacher who were not released due to any performance issues what so ever.  

If teaching is so easy, then by all means get your degree, pass your certification test(s), get your license, and see if you can last longer than the five years in the classroom 50% of those who enter the profession never make it to.


michael, consider the source (4.00 / 1)
This commentary was penned by Rob Manwaring "a senior policy analyst for Education Sector, an independent think tank in Washington" and the principal who oversaw the "turnaround."

Education Sector is hardly a dispassionate perspective, as their mission openly embraces vague concepts such as "data" and they receive their funding from deep-pocketed foundations backing the charter school movement. And the principal who oversaw the "turnaround" is hardly objective either.

Nevertheless, I admire how you avoided the argument to the person and broke down the ingenuine rhetoric into more honest recounting of the events.

Save Our Schools! March & National Call to Action, July 28-31, 2011 in Washington, DC: http://www.saveourschoolsmarch...


I saw his bio (0.00 / 0)
I considered using it, but thought it would be better to point out the misleading statements. It really doesn't matter who uses the talking points, it is the talking points that need to be debunked as they get consistently pushed across a range of "education experts".

Here's Manwaring's bio for those interested.

If teaching is so easy, then by all means get your degree, pass your certification test(s), get your license, and see if you can last longer than the five years in the classroom 50% of those who enter the profession never make it to.


[ Parent ]
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