Friday, February 19, 2010

The Case for Seniority

There's been much discussion lately about layoffs given the current state of the economy, and that has led to much discussion about ignoring seniority and giving the boot to senior teachers. When I read articles like the one by Barbara Maritinez in the Wall Street Journal, I am mystified by the intellectual laziness of the reporting. It's no surprise, really, as politicians spout the same old lame arguments as to why "last in, first out" is the wrong way to go, and reporters tend to echo those sound bites. If you'll excuse me being serious for a change, I'd like to examine the logic, or lack thereof, of the anti-seniority arguments. Here are the ones presented in Martinez's piece:

Argument 1: Many effective and talented teachers who have been hired in recent years will lose their jobs. This argument is wrong on several fronts. First, even in the most terrible budget crunch, the majority of teachers laid off will be first or second year teachers. While certainly many of them may develop into effective teachers, almost none of them are, and I mean no disparagment when I say that. New teachers struggle. I did, and so did every other teacher I know. A new teacher's lack of experience makes them less effective than good veteran teachers. Research has shown that it takes about five years before a teacher really starts to come into his or her own. Second, this argument carries the implication that these "new and effective" teachers are better than veteran teachers, and there is no evidence whatsoever to support that. I am a veteran who works with many new teachers in my department, and they constantly come to me for advice and lessons. So not only are veterans good, but they tend to make new teachers better in a collaborative environment. Third, we already lose almost half the new teachers we hire in NY before they reach that critical fifth year. If school systems really cared about retaining new teachers for their talent rather than for their relative cost, they would stop pressuring and underpaying them. In truth, school systems seem to like the "churn" of newbies, because it keeps overall salaries down, lowers health care costs, and reduces the number of teachers who will eventually be eligible for pensions.

Argument #2 (This one made by Joel Klein): Because newer teachers earn less than veterans, more teachers will end up losing their jobs. While this is true mathematically, let's take the argument to its logical conclusion. The cheapest teachers are the ones with the least experience and the least education. So the teacher who has one day of experience should be retained, according to this argument, while a third year mathematics teacher with a master's degree plus thirty additional credits should be laid off (in NYC, there is a 15 thousand dollar difference between these two teachers). So this argument assumes that we should retain the least experienced and least educated teachers. Would any parent want to send their child to a school system in which experience and education are punished? Would any prospective teacher want to come to a system in which they would be treated as expendible after just a few years and much hard work?

Argument #3 (Made by Tim Daly, head of the New Teachers Project): You will lose teachers you invested a lot in. Haven't we invested a lot in senior teachers, as well? Haven't senior teachers invested a lot of their lives, dedication, and education into serving children? Every effective school I've ever been in got that way because they built a community of teachers who have a common interest in improving that school. You build that interest by giving people a reason to stay, not by threatening their jobs with every economic crisis. And truth be told, how much money has really been invested in new teachers anyway? Last I heard at my own school, we had at least 50 applicants for a vacancy. While some schools are most likely harder to staff, it's usually because they're more challenging schools. We can devote our energies to improving those schools so they become inviting places to work, or we can throw the least experienced teachers in to educate the most needy students, as Tim Daly would have us do. Which makes more sense?

Argument #4: Quality new teachers will be laid off while poor performing veterans will be retained. Yes, there are some poor performing veterans out there. There are also quite a few poor performing new teachers. By laying off veterans, it is virtually guaranteed that even the worst new teachers will be retained because they are far cheaper and because the layoffs will necessitate keeping those low-priced bodies in the classroom.

Argument #5: Layoffs are necessary in the first place. This, of course, is the biggest lie of all. I'm no expert on education spending, but even I know that useless projects drain the education coffers more than enough to pay for any layoffs. ATRs and the rubber rooms alone have cost the city more than 130 million dollars, and that cost is set to keep rising with the closing of 19 schools. Those 19 will probably end up being 60 small schools, with 60 principals and 60 custodians and 60 secretaries. We pour money into charter schools and pay people like Eva Moskowitz nearly half a million dollars a year to run them. We set up systems like ARIS that cost 80 million that have been riddled with problems that render them virtually useless. We have had seemingly endless reorganizations of the city system, each of which takes money away from classrooms. The 700 million dollars the city gained to reduce class sizes has seeminly vanished while class sizes have grown. And while this is going on, the mayor rewards his campaign staff with six figure government jobs while pointing to a looming fiscal calamity.

In my view, this whole layoff argument is nothing more than a blatant implementation of the shock doctrine, in which politicians look for, or in some cases manufacture, a crisis in order to push through their political agendas. Klein, Bloomberg, and other education deformers have long seen the end of seniority as the holy grail of their education policies, and they see the current economic crisis as a means of implementing those policies.

Good public schools have always been a mix of talented senior teachers and eager new ones. Bloomberg, Rhee, Duncan and company would like to do away with all that, and educate your children on the cheap in the guise of education reform and in the name of saving money. Don't let them do it.


Chaz said...

You need to add how these decisions would be made by principals, many of them incapable of determining what is best for the children.

It is no secret that the quality of principals have deteriorated as more and more principals have little or no classroom experience.

Anonymous said...


NYC Educator said...

Great, thoughtful stuff. I'm so glad you decided to take up this awful blogging thing.

Michael Fiorillo said...

Strong points, well expressed.

It also needs to be pointed out that the attack on seniority transcends the world of education, and is of a piece with overall effort to repeal the 20th century, with its protections for workers, benefits such as pensions and health care, and regulations to ameliorate the most vicious reflexes of capitalism.

Anonymous said...

I appreciate the care and thought that went into your post. However, you don't seem to address the notion about new teachers that we deserve to work, too. And even if you say veterans shouldn't just be forced out the door, how can you discount (or not address) the fact that, if new teachers are pushed away, they will be lost to another jurisdiction, or worse, profession, therefore depriving their potential future students of someone who might blossom into a special teacher?

It's a tough call, either way. However, I am a second year teacher with an endangered job. I may not be a master teacher yet, but I am on the way. My administration recognizes my value, but they may not be able to do anything about it. I'm getting shafted because of the year I began teaching. Maybe it isn't fair for veterans to be forced out, but you can't tell me it's fair for new teachers, either.

Anonymous said...

Your arguments fail to recognize that teachers are individuals, and while it's true that many, if not most, novice teachers are struggling to learn their craft, some 1st or 2nd year teachers are amazing. Similarly, many veteran teachers have developed strong skills in the classroom, but we all know that some veteran teachers are terrible. I would prefer a system that looked at each teacher as an individual, and decided who are the weakest, regardless of how many years they've been teaching, and made them the first to go during cuts.

Mr. Talk said...

To PhotoMatt--I don't think it's fair for anyone to be pushed out. At the end of my post, I made it clear that I think layoffs are totally unnecessary. And I agree that layoffs might mean that we lose potentially special teachers, but if seniority rules are ignored, it is certain that we will lose a lot of experienced, talented teachers who have dedicated their whole lives to seving children.

Anon--If there are terrible veteran teachers out there, then adminstrators should be blamed for A) giving them tenure in the first place, and B) not using the 3020A process to remove them from the classroom.

Who decides who is the "weakest" teacher who'll get the ax? The principal alone, who may have a preference for untenured teachers that he can fire at will? Or by test scores that the state themselves admit are flawed? I have two decades of satisfactory ratings, so under what circumstances should you keep your job while I lose mine? And would you really want to work in a system in which you could be fired whenever there's a budget "crisis"? How would we ever attract and retain teachers in a system that treated veterans as disposable?

Unknown said...

I have something to say. I hope you have an open heart for this but I have never met one person who was a union employee who held any other position except being in
favor for seniority.

If I may ask, are you a union employee?