Seniority, in the modern education reform lexicon, is among the dirtiest words. Senior teachers are not only ineffective and greedy and never put interest of the children over their own, but they are in fact downright evil, a persistent drain on state and local economies and a threat to our national security! By contrast, “effectiveness” is good and since seniority and effectiveness are presumed entirely unassociated, the simple solution is to replace any reference to seniority in current education policies with measures of “effectiveness.”
If only it were so simple.
This modern eduction reform mantra grossly misinterprets the relationship between seniority and effectiveness, presumes currently available measures of effectiveness to be more useful than they really are at sorting “good” from “bad” teachers, ignores that the proposed solutions have in many cases been found not to solve the supposed problem, and is oblivious to the broader literature on teacher labor markets, compensation and the quality of the teaching workforce.
Seniority and effectiveness
Numerous studies over time have shown that as teachers reach somewhere around their fifth year, student achievement gains under those teachers begin to grow more slowly and, to an extent, level off. These findings, to the extent we believe that these metrics of test score gain adequately represent teaching effectiveness, do not by any stretch of the imagination mean that more-experienced teachers are less effective. Rather, their effectiveness increases from year to year level off. If they have indeed reached their optimal performance then it makes sense to continue to compensate senior teachers in order to retain them. A constant cycle of replacement costs money — and costs in terms of lost effectiveness during the start-up years.
Seniority and fairness to children
One argument is that seniority preferences in teaching assignments permit senior teachers to hold on to jobs in schools against their principal’s preferences and that these seniority privileges often lead to the neediest children having the least-experienced teachers — as the more-experienced teachers get the cushiest jobs in the district.
On the one hand, this assertion acknowledges that new teachers, not senior ones, may in fact be the least effective. On the other hand, it’s simply not supported by research. Two separate studies, one on Seattle schools after implementing “mutual consent” hiring, and the other exploring Florida seniority contractual provisions have found that:
a) Implementation of mutual consent initially exacerbated inequities across schools and ultimately led to no change.
b) Seniority provisions in contracts had no statistical relationship to inequitable distributions of teachers across schools and children.
Further, mutual-consent hiring policies:
a) Assume that central office decisions are necessarily bad and principals’ decisions necessarily good.
b) Ignore that principal quality itself may be inequitably distributed.
c) Ignore that central office is responsible for assigning principals.
Seniority and Layoffs
Another argument is that removing seniority preferences in cases of reduction in force will necessarily lead to an improved teaching workforce as measured by student achievement outcomes. The argument is that seniority preferences must be replaced by “effectiveness” metrics that are predictably related to future effectiveness.
First, such “effectiveness” measures are typically only available for core content classroom teachers between grades 3 and 8. In those relatively rare cases where reduction in force is actually implemented, the 20 percent of teachers for whom such metrics are available are least likely to be reduced, and there typically exists significant latitude in deciding which programs and positions might be reduced first. Most reductions in force, which happen infrequently to begin with, chip away at other programs and services before ever approaching core subject area teachers.
Second, these effectiveness measures are widely erratic and often substantially biased by who the teacher is teaching. In reality, these policies propose to replace seniority with a roll of the dice, or even a roll of rigged dice.
Third, when implementing a 5 percent across-the-board cut, for example, effectively eliminating teachers at random by experience rather than eliminating only the newest teachers, results only in nickels-and-dimes savings — certainly not enough to make even the smallest dent in the degree of persistent underfunding of Philadelphia schools. (See also: “Debunking Reformy ‘Messaging’: A Philadelphia Story“)
While seniority is a seemingly arbitrary and imperfect measure for retaining teachers, replacing it with a roll of the dice is likely to have serious negative consequences for retaining high-quality senior teachers and recruiting teachers into high-need districts.
Bigger-picture wage issues
Most important to recruiting and retaining a high-quality teacher workforce in any given school district are:
a) The relative compensation and working conditions a teacher can expect throughout their career when compared with other career options in the same labor market.
Paying teachers competitively, offering good working conditions, including smaller class sizes and other resources, and providing job security are far more likely to produce the teaching workforce Philadelphia school children need.
Bruce Baker is a professor of education at Rutgers University School of Education.