January 9 2014
Time to Retire Teacher Seniority
Vicki E. Alger
Hiring and firing teachers based on time served instead of talent is championed by teachers unions—but it undermines the overall quality of the teaching pool, which adversely affects students. According to the National Council on Teacher Quality
Today, the overwhelming majority of school districts use seniority as the only determinant of teacher layoff decisions. But given what is at stake — that student progress depends on the quality of the teachers to which they are assigned — teacher performance should be a factor in any layoff. Student needs should be paramount when considering how best to handle employment decisions. The academic costs of laying off teachers without attention to classroom performance are potentially high. Nevertheless, according to NCTQ’s analysis of states with ambitious teacher evaluation systems, not even half (14 and DCPS) require districts to use improved evaluations to make better staffing decisions when and if layoffs become necessary (p. 25).
California is among the worst offenders nationwide for having no formal policy linking teacher evaluations to objective measures of student performance, according to NCTQ (p. 8). This means layoff decisions are flying on seniority auto-pilot. But if a new measure makes it to the ballot in November, voters would decide whether California teachers would have to bank on more than seniority to keep their jobs.
Matt David of StudentsFirst submitted the measure to the Secretary of State last month, where it’s awaiting a title and a summary before signatures can be gathered. The issue of teacher seniority remains a contentious issue. California school districts have laid off more than 30,000 full-time teachers since 2007-08, largely based on who was hired last, not how well those teachers perform. Last year the state’s Legislative Analyst’s Office reported that the “state values seniority in the layoff process.” Specifically:
Current law requires that districts lay off teachers in inverse seniority order. …basing employment decisions on the number of years served instead of teachers' performance can lead to lower quality of the overall teacher workforce. California also is different than many other states—the majority do not prescribe seniority–based layoffs but rather allow school districts themselves to decide how to lay off their staff. …we recommend exploring statewide alternatives that could provide districts with the discretion to do what is in the best interest of their students. Ideally districts would use multiple factors in making layoff determinations. …[such as] student performance, teacher quality, and contributions to school community.
While many good teachers are likely being pink-slipped under California’s last-hired-first-fired policy, teachers accused of sexual offenses against students remain on the job and on the taxpayer payroll. As drafted, the proposed ballot measure would make it easier to fire such teachers.
Improving the quality of the teaching workforce in California and across the country starts with sensible hiring and firing policies. Ballot measures such as this one are worth watching.