Why don’t schools with the biggest challenges have access to the biggest talent?

Rethink Learning Now asks:

Why don't schools with the biggest challenges have access to the biggest talent?


Answer My answer:

Because as educational systems we allow individual teacher preferences and/or union seniority systems to trump what’s best for kids.

If the Number 1 school influence on students’ success is the quality of their teachers, the fact that we often (usually?) give our most disadvantaged students our least-qualified instructors is an indictment of all of us.

Many districts across the country are laying off teachers right now. This would seem an especially critical time to ensure that the kids who need the best teachers get them. Instead, prepare for another summer round of the ‘dance of the lemons’ (or ‘pass the trash’). Shame on us.

[hat tip to Carolyn Foote for the video]

17 Responses to “Why don’t schools with the biggest challenges have access to the biggest talent?”

  1. “we allow individual teacher preferences and/or union seniority systems to trump what’s best for kids.”

    Really? You think that’s the reason? Seriously?

    Don’t you think that, say, the greater funding and recruitment possibilities that wealthier districts (and wealthier parents) can channel into their schools has a significant impact? Don’t you see this, in other words, as much more likely to reflect *employer* imperatives, rather than employee?

    It would astonish me to find that the unions are so strong they can send all the weak teachers to poor districts. I don’t even know what mechanism they would employ to do this!

  2. I challenge you to read Master Contract language at any school with a collective bargaining unit (read labor union). The protections afforded senior staff, bumping rights, first shot at job openings, all based on seniority rather than effectiveness. Teachers unions and there master agreements only reward surviving one more year. Has nothing to do with positively impacting student achievement.

  3. @Stephen Downes: Here in the U.S. we’ve got two separate phenomena going on:

    1) The ability of advantaged school districts to attract teachers from more disadvantaged districts (interdistrict teacher transfers), and
    2) The ability of teachers to have a lot of say over their schools, school assignments, classes, students, etc. within a district (intradistrict or intraschool teacher transfers).

    Our traditions of ceding state control over the educational system down to local systems, combined with collective bargaining agreements, has resulted in the situation I described in my post. Ultimately it’s each state – not school districts or schools or administrators or teachers or unions – that is responsible for its ‘system of education.’ And it’s exactly those state and district systems that fail to get our most needy students the teachers they deserve because, to the extent that the system can assign personnel, they favor teacher preference [where would you like to work? v. where do we need you to work?] and/or seniority [district-union negotiated collective bargaining agreements].

  4. @Stephen Downes: Oops, forgot to say that you’re correct that I didn’t pay enough attention to the interdistrict teacher transfer issue in my post. I was too focused on the intradistrict or intraschool transfer issue. Brevity is not always the soul of wit!

  5. Other than what I’ve read about big city school systems, I don’t know much about their union CBAs. I do know quite a bit about Maine’s laws and the smaller, rural school systems here. I suspect our experience may be similar to other states’ and want to be sure it’s clear that not every state has or every CBA has restrictive provisions.

    In Maine, it is illegal (as “educational policy” – 26 MRSA 965) for a CBA to govern teachers transfers. That’s not to say that most school systems don’t ask teachers IF they’d mind being transferred (because that’s the right thing to do), but ultimately it’s the school board’s decision – not the teacher’s or the union’s.

    Also, in rural areas, there is no intra-district movement because there’s no place to go. Many schools in Maine have only a single grade at each level or even double-graded classes (not because it’s cool and cutting-edge, but by necessity). It would be good if some attention would be paid to the needs and circumstances of rural areas when it comes to educational reform.

  6. First of all, my apologies, I didn’t notice in the original post (which I read in my RSS reader) that you were quoting someone else.

    That said…

    “Our traditions of ceding state control over the educational system down to local systems, combined with collective bargaining agreements, has resulted in the situation I described in my post.”

    This, I think, is demonstrably false.

    Not the first part. I have no doubt that you:
    – cede control to local systems
    – have collective bargaining units

    But rather, the second part, that this:
    – results in the situation I described…

    Why do I think it’s false?

    Because you describe a causal relationship, where the first part causes the second part.

    But if it’s a causal relationship, I would expect to see the same effect when I see the same cause elsewhere.

    But places like Canada and Finland belie that. Both have the conditions you describe, but much less of the effect you describe.

    The difference between these nations and the U.S. is, I would argue, the *real* cause of the effect you describe. And the difference is what I alluded to in my post, the large income disparity, and the consequent exercise of personal wealth to influence board staffing decisions.

    I would re-examine the linkage between unions and the staffing decisions. I reiterate my original point, that it is very unlikely that the unions have as much power as you describe.

  7. I’ll cede your point re: Canada and Finland. You’re more worldly than I and can better bring in the comparative viewpoint. It would be interesting for me to learn more sometime about differences between U.S. educator unions and those in other countries.

    Here in America we do have large personal and district income disparities, and I 100% agree that those resource differences account for much of the interdistrict transfer issue. Teacher preferences play a part as well, as educators look for greener pastures, easier working environments, greater pay, etc.

    Within a school or district, however, it’s somewhat of a different picture. While districts could assign their best teachers to their most needy students, they rarely do. Instead, they allow teacher preference and seniority provisions to shape teacher assignment. Who gets the Honors kids? It’s rarely the new teacher. Who has to work with the toughest classes? It’s usually the new teacher. If layoffs occur, do districts get to pick which teachers retain their jobs based on talent rather than seniority? Rarely. And so on. This is not solely the unions’ fault. I’m not putting the onus on them. This is a joint failing of the unions and the district together, who typically have failed TOGETHER to create internal systems of personnel assignment that best address the needs of their most disadvantaged students.

    It WAS my answer to Rethink Learning Now’s question. I altered my post to make that more clear. Thanks for the conversation!

  8. In Texas, we don’t have teacher unions at all. But it is the local control of districts that keeps the best teachers in wealthy districts. They pay more, and there is a perception that the students are better behaved. Simple as that. What you propose is turning teachers into something akin to the military where you join up and you have little or no control over where you are assigned to work. That by itself would drive a number of teachers out of teaching, you would have to do this nationwide and break the control of the unions – not likely with the current party in control. Otherwise teachers would flee from states that tried this.

  9. @Teach_J: Let me clarify…

    1. We have a problem. We can’t get our best teachers in front of the students who need them the most. Most people probably wouldn’t argue with this essential premise.

    2. Part of the problem is interdistrict. We use bonuses, tuition repayment, housing allowances, and other incentives to try and equalize the playing field between rich/easier and poor/harder districts. So far those haven’t made much difference. Some of this occurs because we don’t tell people where they should live/work (and I’m NOT advocating that we should) and some occurs because, as Stephen Downes notes, we allow differential spending / resources between districts even though by law education is a state, not district, function.

    3. Part of the problem is intradistrict. While theoretically districts can assign teachers to the school where they’re needed, what typically happens is that this usually occurs only on initial assignment. After that, the teachers with the most seniority get the best/easiest/Honors classes and are immune from layoffs, even when less-experienced teachers are the least ready to have the toughest classes and/or may be more talented / a better fit than some of their more senior peers. Some of this occurs because of district administrators’ fecklessness, some because of union-negotiated CBAs.

    Okay, so that’s the situation. No one’s come up with great answers yet for the interdistrict issue. We have a little more control over the intradistrict issue but we usually don’t do as much inside our districts as we could (whether we have teacher unions in them or not). How would you fix this?

  10. I agree with Teach_J, and I would add that in addition to the problems others have pointed out, there is also the issue of illogical thinking about identifying causes and solutions.

    First, the question of if and how much unions are a cause of this problem: I also live in a state (Virginia) where collective bargaining for teachers is not allowed. We don’t even technically have a teachers’ union because this is a right-to-work state. Yet we see the same disparities between affluent districts with relative homogeneity among the socio-economic-status of students and poor or rural districts. Though state tests might not necessarily show it, other indicators like graduation rates, college admission, and SAT scores do show that even in non-union states this is a problem. So it can’t be as simple as merely weakening or eliminating the power of unions.

    Second, let’s just think about this problem in the context of any other career. Does the rookie salesman start out hoping that one day, he can move from a cushy career to going door-to-door, for only slightly more pay? Good teachers are not stupid, and though they may be driven by altruism in their choice of profession there needs to be a logical progression of benefits. Instead of putting all the benefits at the front of the career (bonus pay, tuition repayment, housing allowances, etc.) we need to think about creating a system where taking tough teaching assignments mid-career or late in your career brings benefits…this doesn’t have to be cash, either. Most mid-career teachers would like to pursue more education at some point…a sabbatical or paid-for classes could be a help. An additional planning time, or a more flexible vacation schedule, or a position of influence in school-level policymaking could all be motivators, too.

    Third, in general, we need to think about how we are equipping teachers who do work with the most difficult classes. They need not only more training, but more planning time. I heard recently that many of the countries which outperform the US offer three”>http://www.storiesfromschool.org/2009/10/five-ways-to-increase-teacher-planning-time.html>three to four times the amount of planning time for teachers (meaning of course that the teacher also has fewer contact hours with students each day). Additionally, teachers working with reluctant learners need to be able to innovate and individualize their approaches to discipline and the structure of the school day the same way that high-performing charter schools do.

    It’s not easy, but it’s not rocket science, either. I often think that administrators would do well to keep one foot in the classroom (of their own, not merely observing and critiquing other teachers) so they can test their own reform ideas before inflicting them upon others.

  11. Sorry for messing up that link…here it is again: http://www.storiesfromschool.org/2009/10/five-ways-to-increase-teacher-planning-time.html

    Do *any* American teachers get 15-20 planning hours each week?

  12. As I read this, it appears to me that there is a truth that Scott is getting at that is being missed. Contracts keep the jobs of the most tenured individuals on a staff-not necessarily the best teacher or the best fit for the position-when it comes to reductions. Anyone who chooses to argue this can simply sit back and watch Iowas cut 100’s of teachers this year and know it won’t be the 20 year veterans, regardless of quality. By the way, that is not to paint all veterans as less qualified or of less quality. Very untrue. Many are highly qualified and are demonstrating their high quality on a daily basis in our classrooms. Some, however, are not the same quality or even as qualified for a specific assignment as their newer to the profession (or district) counterparts. I’m taking this piece to the bank – you can tell me I’m wrong here, but all I hear is “blah, blah, blah.”

    The second part is where I think the whole situation is unraveling. The most veteran teachers wish to move to the highest level of thinking and most intellectually stimulating classrooms that they can manage. (I speak thinking of the HS level, so some variations may exist for younger student classrooms.) They also want the classroom that is determined, excited to learn, and has a desire to succeed. These are the positions that many educators seek and typically find only after years of patience and tenure. When that position opens, all of those qualified and many not qualified pounce on the opportunity to ask for the transfer to their picture of heaven in the classroom. An administrator seeing this will naturally look to put a highly motivated, strong background candidate into this position and in doing so support their desire to teach under his/her wonderfully awesome supervision for years to come. Such goes the fairy tale of education – and this one we make true…all live happily ever after.

    What I believe Scott is saying (tell me if I’m wrong…again) is that when we do this, we move one of the greatest assets we have into a position where the students will succeed with even marginal support. We put our strongest individuals in front of our strongest students and then we can say, “see how great our greatest students are achieving.” That part is wonderful, but it means that our lowest achievers are lacking the opportunity to learn from our strongest teachers, and the gap grows. It’s not really unions that do this, it is US – teachers and administrators. I’m hoping that I get all of my teachers to raise their hands and say, “please, please take me out of this Shakespearian Poetry and Literature coursework with students averaging 3.85 on cumulative gpa’s and consider me for that incoming remediated English 9 class that the 8th grade teachers have told us about (you can read that “complained about”) all year.” That’s what I would call a truly dedicated teacher that loves kids and wants them to have the best we can offer.

  13. Marshall, perhaps an even greater scandal than good teachers moving on to work with honors classes (are we saying honors classes don’t need top-notch teachers?) is that many good teachers move on into administration or higher ed.

    I wonder what would happen if we started recruiting administrators and professors to teach even just one class of reluctant learners for an hour each day.

  14. @Jeremy Aldrich: Marshall said what I’ve been trying to re: the intradistrict issue, just more clearly and eloquently. That said, I agree with you too on the interdistrict issue. I don’t see that fixing itself anytime soon. We have much more control over the intradistrict issue, I believe. I also agree with you on the training part (but in order to make that happen, we’d have to hire a massive number of new teachers or realize much greater efficiencies with those we already have).

  15. Not sure I believe that answer. The main problem I see is that “best teacher” often means “best fit.” So the teacher that’s the best teacher might not be for all kids.

    Second, if the senior teachers want to teach the highest level of kids, I don’t think that’s solving any problems by making them change. You’ll just make them disgruntled and less good at what they do.

    The problem then is not “How do we force the best teachers to teach in the most challenging situations” but how do we create the conditions so that the best teachers WANT to teach in the most challenging situations. As linked above, more collaborative time, smaller classes, other (non-financial) incentives can certainly help.

    We also have “300 kids passed the AP test!” celebrations. I’ve never seen one for “You got all your kids to read at grade level.”

  16. This is a really multifacted discussion about a lot of different issues.

    If the issue is the layoff process, seniority and certification are almost always the determining factors. To handle this otherwise would be to assume that it is easy to rank order teachers from best to worst, and cast off the worst. I know that statement sounds overly simplistic, but when it would actually need to play out that way – you’d draw a line in the rankings and cast off those below that line. Now, I would have some level of trust in this process if I believed that there was a perfect formula for being a high-quality teaching, but I don’t. It is too subjective and situationally based (Kind of like deciding who sucks more, Picasso or Monet and kicking one the two out).

    If this conversation is about teacher placement – putting strong teachers in with struggling students, then yes, this is problematic for many reasons. Contractually, it is a non-issue here in my district. Teacher assignment (within certification areas) is a management right. However, it is a much more difficult problem than a simple contractual issue.

    Challenging teaching assignments take someone with a very specific set of skills and dispositions (have you ever seen someone who just works magic with tough kids – amazing!). It is not something that many can do (not many that I have seen) with any lasting endurance. Additionally, the number of people with these skills is few in contrast to the number of people needed. The money will do little to help this issue as you really need to internally feel motivated to go to work everyday in tough conditions.

  17. While I agree wholeheartedly with the thesis that unions block progress by supporting seniority and “bad teachers,” until you can give me a yardstick by which to measure a “good teacher” that is better than a standardized test in which there are no consequences or stakes for the test taker, and that test is somehow culture- and ethos-neutral, and that test allows for the seven intelligences (or is that passe, and everyone goes to college an no one knows how to do or fix or make anything?) and that test takes into account “student disposition at time of test” and that disposition is not a)surly b)heavily medicated by Mexican/Southwestern California pharmacopia or c)sleep deprived, then hey, I’m going to take a pass on your offer to disrupt the union as it stands. The only voice teachers have right now is a union. Every morning, I wake up and I get to read about how education is failing. I’ve been teaching for 18 years, and that’s all I’ve ever heard. And who makes up education besides students? Teachers. Parents. Administrators. But the sole blame for education is being laid at the feet of teachers. It’s unfair, unrealistic, and small-minded.

    Here in RI, we’re undergoing a witch hunt, wherein the problem is the union, and is also the parents, and is also the administration, and is also the state department of education, and is also (gasp) the students themselves. Changing a culture by breaking the back of the union is a political ploy to play to the rabble, not a panacea to the woes that plague education. Unless you want to take on all of the above AT ONCE to change the culture surrounding EVERY aspect of American education, it is doomed to fail. The rhetoric of simply blaming teachers, or unions, or parents, or poverty, or students is, as Emerson put it, “the hobgoblin of little minds.”

    When it comes to public education, people are simply gravitating to whatever political pole suits them and are not looking at the problem holistically. Political platitudes and rhetoric be damned. Unless the culture in America changes to one which values education, there will never be progress. Until parents and teachers are partners in education and can present a “united front” to the counterculture of “it’s cool to be stupid” then public education in America will never be able to compete with a country like Korea, where teachers are respected, education is seen as a critical enterprise in a young person’s life, and where parents are the driving force in a child’s life.

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