Teacher layoffs: Should seniority rule?

As budget cuts loom again in many states, employee termination, seniority, and ‘bumping rights’ are in the news. The essential issue is whether organizational leaders should be able to retain the employees they think are the most highly-skilled or whether seniority (or some other factor) should be employed instead. ‘Highly skilled’ in this instance means ‘employee quality’ or ‘best fit for employer needs,’ both of which are typically defined by the organization, not the employee or union.

Here is an indicative quote from Iowa in favor of seniority-based employment provisions:

“We're not going to have this debate on whether or not somebody who has worked for a year gets to stay over somebody who has devoted 30 years of their life because they work harder," [Danny Homan, president of Council 61 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees] said. "That is baloney."

And here’s another, this time in favor of merit-based layoffs:

"You always want to focus on keeping your best-performing people," said David Keeling, a spokesman for the New Teacher Project. "The only thing worse than a layoff situation is one where you are forced to cut some of your best-performing people regardless of their contributions or their fit with their jobs."

Providence, Rhode Island parents have petitioned the local teachers union to give up seniority-based layoff protections. The New York Daily News has stated that

there is basically no relationship between seniority and teaching ability. A wide and scarcely disputed body of research finds that teachers' additional experience stops paying off after about year three.

Education Sector reported that rethinking teacher contracts could free billions for school reform. And a very interesting study out of Indianapolis showed that a majority of sampled teachers thought that factors other than seniority (but not student achievement, apparently) should be considered for teacher layoffs.

The National Education Association recently made news for stating that it would encourage local unions to “waive any contract language that prohibits staffing high-needs schools with great teachers.” In the past it had said that staffing and seniority issues should be left to local unions and districts. The American Federation of Teachers chimed in with its support.

I wonder if the majority of educators favor or disfavor seniority-based layoff protections. I wonder how the majority of citizens feel as well. If I had to guess, I’d venture that most citizens are against teacher seniority serving as the primary determinant of job protection. I’m not sure about public school educators. What do you think?

16 Responses to “Teacher layoffs: Should seniority rule?”

  1. I probably won’t be able to add a definitive opinion to this – it’s a tricky issue to be sure. The main reason I don’t like to see protection taken away from seniority is because I think that cash strapped districts might not be able to resist the temptation to unload their most expensive personnel, be they poor or excellent. I will stop short of saying that I believe teachers with seniority are always superior teachers. I think that for the most part experience does make for a better educator, but after 5 to 7 years, I don’t know how much more experience makes a difference.

    So there is my un-definitive and therefore probably unhelpful opinion. I think we have all struggled with our position on this issue at one time or another – it’s not an easy question.

  2. I think the greatest issue with seniority-based retention at my school is that the teachers with the greatest seniority are also the administrators. So they’re definitely in favor of seniority-based retention.

    This is a problem for me, because I have 12 years of experience, but no administrative functions or authority. So it’s very easy for me to be labeled as superfluous personnel, regardless of my effectiveness as a teacher.

    Of course, we’re also in the middle of a hiring freeze, and a salary-hike freeze, and a retirement-account-contribution cut. We also downshifted to the least elaborate medical insurance plan. So between these factors, my seniority doesn’t count for much. I’m likely to lose my job in a time of cuts, and I’m going to pay a substantial percentage of my health care costs in the event of illness, and I’m not putting as much away for retirement as I used to.

    For all these reasons, I decided to learn how to teach with computers in the classroom, and a wiki. If I have a demonstrated ability to teach a class using “the latest technology” I imagine I’ll be hireable somewhere else if I lose work here.

  3. It will be easier to consider layoffs based on (lack of) teacher merit when someone decides what merit actually is – quantifies it and decides not just how it’s measured but who gets to measure it (peers, administrators, some outside agency). I know how close we are to reaching a concensus on that.

    In the mean time, the two choices seem to be seniority-based layoffs and layoffs based purely on the random preferences of a district. As a West Virginia teacher who lives in Virginia, I’ve seen both systems up close. I like the seniority-based work environment I have in WV (even though this is just my fifth year) much more than the politically charged sense of insecurity teachers face in my home county in Virginia.

    There is a factor other than seniority that enters into the picture. Layoffs generally occur in specific certification categories. A district is forced by student demographics (or by lack of funding) to lay off a few teachers with elementary certification. A teacher who is also certified in reading (or in some middle school content area) may get transfered instead of being laid off while more senior but less qualified teachers hit the road. In other words, if you collect the right certifications, seniority becomes much less relevant – even in a state as unionized as West Virginia.

  4. I believe Greg says it well. In my many years in the classroom I have yet to see a credible evaluation system properly used. What sounds good on paper isn’t translated into reality. Until that happens, seniority should stay.

  5. Hi Scott – I think the major issue with “merit” based decisions on either pay or layoffs and even staffing is who is deciding. It seems at some point we may have to face this issue. As is true with most education issues though it seems, that it is opening a can of worms. As Tracie mentioned above saving money can be a lure down a primrose path. We already give more experienced teachers incentives to retire early to save money, this would provide the opportunity to unload those teachers at 0 extra expense. We always laugh at how parents make decisions on who the best teachers are at any grade level. Often one parent touches base with a parent that had a kid in that grade last year, and based on their opinion “the teacher” is decided. What is interesting is that this years star can be the one to avoid next year based on a few opinions. I’ve also noted how a teacher that is one principals pariah can end up being a chosen one when the next principal takes over.

    This is truly a major issue. Solving it will take the wisdom of Solomon I’m afraid. In addition it is a problem that has developed over many, many years and is not just the fault of teacher unions, many hands have contributed to the problem Let’s hope that solving it doesn’t succumb to the horrible societal and political climate we are experiencing now.
    Brian

  6. 5th year public teacher here. I’ve always felt seniority based anything was just plain useless. I’m in a high turnover school so I’m actually in the top 25% of seniority so I don’t feel like I’m just covering my butt from layoffs.

    Obviously we’d have to link pay to highly skilled as well to prevent districts from just firing more expensive teachers. Of course, I’m also of the opinion that you don’t want to work in a district that would fire teachers just based on how expensive they are.

    Who would decide? Frankly I think almost anything is better than what we have here. I think a 360 degree evaluation is probably best with administrators/teachers/students/parents all getting a chance to have their say. Having teachers evaluate teachers would improve teaching all around if for no other reason than we’d get a structured opportunity to observe others.

    I tried to propose a system last year when we were going through cutbacks but people flipped. I’d say 60% strongly against, 25% moderately against, the other 15% on my side. Of those 15% though probably 90% were in danger of being cut so I don’t know who was really in favor and who was just hoping to get saved.

  7. Thank you for this thoughtful post. I feel sad for the precarious position so many educators find themselves in these days — who would have ever thought that teachers would be worrying about losing their jobs?

    As for choosing which teachers to lay off, this is, indeed, a slippery issue and not one with an easy, one-size-fits-all answer. Should teacher retention be based on seniority or merit? I believe it should be based on seniority IF there also is proven merit, but how should merit be documented?

    I personally believe that teachers should be regularly evaluated–both formally and informally–by administrators, peers, students, parents, and even outside educational consultants. Too often, years of service and the status quo have been trusted without documentation or evidence of merit.

    On the other hand, too often, exceptional classroom performance has gone unnoticed because of the lack of formal evaluation processes. No one sees or documents the enormous strides teachers make in the classrooms every day.

    I also believe teachers need to take the scary plunge and participate in brutal self-evaluations. I believe they should be videotaped in the classroom (as they are for National Board portfolio submissions) and watch themselves in action, ready to make changes where necessary to improve their delivery, interaction, and relationship styles with the students (for example, are they dominating too much and not allowing the students to learn on their own?).

    I hope you’ll read my blog post about the process of teacher evaluation and the need for weeding out ineffective teachers — or, rather, how to decide whether teachers are effective or not: “The Best Mirrors” http://edutwist.com/elin/?p=1026

  8. I have yet to see the over-staffed school. I would say no matter how you cut it,the loser is the one who stays.

  9. There is very little doubt that the real question here is recognizing loyalty versus identifying quality. At times these indicators would identify the same individual. At other times they would conflict. Bottom line, the best for the district and the students would be to retain the individuals that fit the needs of the school and carry out their duties at a higher level. The best for the employees would be to recognize and reward longevity as an indicator of dedication and commitment. Maybe my question above is inaccurate. Should it be “what is good for staff versus what is good for students” instead? None of this even addresses the other questions about retention of quality people in the system or the motivation they have to stay in a system, nor does it address the ethics and/or desire of being a good employer to committed employees. It also doesn’t touch on the concept that not all long-term employees are necessarily loyal, committed, and/or dedicated to their district, school, and/or position. Long-term employment doesn’t necessarily indicate long-term effectiveness, although it can. These aren’t mutually exclusive characteristics.

    As noted by many, it will make a difference who makes the call on quality and fit as well. Not all administrators have the same philosophy or see the same priorities, so one may simply be a better fit than another depending upon the preferences of that building’s administrator and the current need/goals that are being targeted.
    With the who, however, having those less familiar with the actual teaching (community, parents, etc) does scare me. Also, this is a great way to have good teachers hung out with little to no support. Easy targets for the times they held students accountable if this impacts their jobs – make way for “everybody gets what they want” approaches. I do have to agree whole-heartedly with Jason’s observation, “Having teachers evaluate teachers would improve teaching all around if for no other reason than we’d get a structured opportunity to observe others,” and clearly Roger can sum it up.

  10. The elephant in the room on this and related issues always seems to be teacher tenure. While many, if not most, of the best teachers are also the ones who have been around the longest this is definitely not always the case. The problem is that for a minority of teachers at the top, both a sense of job entitlement and burnout kick in. Districts who have seniority measures in their contracts have an incredibly difficult time getting rid of these expensive ineffective staff members. For these teachers seniority is not the primary problem, it is tenure. Tenure ensures that these teachers always have a job in the classroom. In turn, when status quo practices and measures are detrimental to the larger system tenured teachers with seniority are less likely to be on board with or make changes necessary to ensure the health of the system they work for. In turn, in times of budget shortfalls, for each of these teachers who must stay on the pay roll often two untenured teachers have to be cut. Changing the way we handle tenure would solve this.

    What I propose, and I have not seen it or anything like it done in public schools yet (correct me if I am wrong), is to put limits on tenure much in the same way states put limits on teacher licenses. Instead of tenure lasting for life, give teachers 5 or 10 years of tenure. At then end of their term their tenure status could go up for review. Now, how a teacher’s tenure status could be revoked could even be put under strict protective measures. For instance, a rogue administrator couldn’t just do this on their own accord. What if such a measure were done through a series of checks and balances. An administrator could propose it, then a group comprised of a union rep, an administrator, an a board member could vote to either continue renew the tenure or place the teacher back on probationary status. Then, after one year of probationary status, if the teacher doesn’t improve or live up to expectations they could be terminated.

  11. Tenure is earned after several years in a district and several reviews of performance. I am not so sure that its original intent was protecting bad teachers. Administrators need to do a careful job with the observations and follow-up.

    It would be a pretty strange mind-set to be thinking in terms of “I’ve put in my time, now I can let my work slide.” I don’t think anyone with healthy mind does that. If a teacher needs training to be a better fit, get the teacher the training.

    Institutional and community knowledge are very valuable (I would say priceless.) That type of knowledge comes only with experience and is worth paying a little bit more for. If I were to start loading up a team with more work per individual, I would be looking for experienced team members because they know how the community works and would be more effective.

    As a leader, you need to show loyalty and fairness to your staff. If you don’t, expect loyalty and fairness issues to boomerang. Time on the job is one criteria that can be used without being accused of playing favorites.

    If you have a bad employee, do what is necessary to get rid of them. Tenure isn’t the protection that people make it out to be. Bad employees can be removed. It is more work, but the right thing to do.

    Who’s job was it to see to proper funding anyway?

  12. In a case like this, the terms in the Master Contract are all that matter. Whether you like it or not.

  13. Ask this question again after you’ve explained the process of determining exactly how merit will be determined.

  14. I’m in my fourth school in 7 years, and am hoping I am finally in a place/have enough seniority that my job is safe. Like any corporation, I think teachers should be retained based on a combination of seniority and merit. Any other company has reviews (and as I have on average 3 observations a year, this is where this would come in) and other checks and balances which determine merit.

    I’m tired of being kicked out of my job, even though I’ve been told by every principal I work for that I’m the best media specialist they know, just because someone with more seniority wants my job. That’s absurd.

  15. @Dan McGuire

    This is an actual question, not a snarky one, I promise,”Why is defining merit for teachers so much different than any other job?”

    I never really got the historical reason for that but in my mind, every job can argue the question of merit. Is it my sales total for this quarter or is it that I’ve put down a foundation for sales for years to come? Is it the amount of code I wrote or is it one really good contribution? Is it the number of arrests I’ve made? The amount crime went down in my patrol area? Is a surgeon better or worse if they’re willing to perform risky procedures that lead to more operating table deaths but longer post-op lifespan?

    For me though it comes down to this: One of the core duties of our job is to evaluate. You can argue about what that really means or the purposes but that’s what we do.

    Our job is to evaluate, so why are we so scared of being evaluated ourselves?

    Yes it’s hard to pin down merit, but that’s our job. We evaluate things that are hard to evaluate. How can you measure reading comprehension? You have no idea what is going on in your student’s head. So what do you do? You develop criteria and tools, you make your best guess using them, you reflect, and you revise your criteria and tools.

    So for teacher merit we do the exact same thing.

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