Norm Scott over at Education Notes posted the following piece by Special Education Teacher Julie Cavanagh a few days ago. I thought it was an excellent defense of seniority rights. Cavanagh makes points that you never hear referenced in the mainstream media. My only qualm is that she occasionally refers to seniority rights as LIFO, which I think is a stupid name. Otherwise, I think this is well worth reading slowly and carefully if you're at all interested in education policy.
Teach for America Silences Voices of Rank-and-File Teachers on LIFO Panel
by Julie Cavanagh
Special education teacher, PS 15, Brooklyn, member Grassroots Education Movement (GEM)
April 12, 2011
Two weeks ago I was invited to appear on a panel regarding seniority rights. The panel was being organized by Teach for America. I quickly accepted the opportunity to bring the voice of the rank-and-file teacher to the issue. A few days after I accepted, I received another email and was informed that despite my interest there would no longer be room on the panel for me because Leo Casey, UFT VP of High Schools, would be joining the panel. When one of my fellow GEM members informed Leo Casey, he said he would contact the TFA folks and tell them I should be on the panel. Needless to say, the TFA folks have not responded to the email I sent to them. (See correspondence in separate cover).
Since I am a 'T' in UFT, and since there is not one full-time public school educator on a panel that is discussing the pros and cons of seniority rights for full-time public school educators, I am disappointed and disturbed. I can't help but think that the removal of the only real teacher voice from the panel is intentional. Shame on the organizers of this event for silencing the teacher voice in this conversation!
I recently had the opportunity to make the case for LIFO in a debate with a member of E4E on NY1's "Inside City Hall" and would have loved the opportunity to reiterate and expand on those points tonight. Here is some of what I would be saying tonight at the TFA panel were I not dis-invited:
Before I begin, I'd like to point out that many teacher tenure and seniority laws predate the right of teachers to bargain collectively by many years. (The UFT was not founded until 1960). These laws were passed due to rampant corruption in hiring and firing practices and were designed to protect academic freedom and basic constitutional rights.
1. Seniority rights protect not only teachers, but children.
Teachers are often the strongest advocates for their children, all too often coming up against their supervisors in doing so. Without seniority rights, teachers would be susceptible to arbitrary lay-offs based on a myriad of possibilities including race, sexuality, politics, or advocacy for children and/or parents. In my more than ten years in the classroom, and in policy and advocacy work over the last several years I have seen countless dedicated and excellent educators attacked, harassed, given U-ratings, and in some cases pushed out of the school system as retribution by administrators. Children benefit from the only objective process that keeps their teachers from being silenced, unable to speak out, or defend their rights and advocate for proper learning and classroom conditions.
2. I flatly reject any evaluation or lay-off system that is tied to test scores especially the inclusion of a merit pay system.
Over the last year in particular, the unreliability of test scores have been exposed. We have seen mountains of research, including the Vanderbilt and EPI studies respectively, point out that merit-pay schemes and other test-score-based performance measures do not have a positive impact on student achievement. Standardized tests often do little more than measure socioeconomic status, narrow our curriculum and turn our schools into inhumane places that make teaching and learning horrific experiences for teachers and students alike. I left the testing grade this year because I no longer wanted to be complicit in what I consider to be the systematic abuse of my children, particularly children with special needs. I say this as a teacher with a 'teacher report card' with a 99% rating. I am all for accountability, but until we develop objective and meaningful measures to hold teachers accountable, seniority rights for lay-offs is the only way to ensure both educators and students are protected. In terms of evaluations, I refuse to be forced into a scenario where we say the current system is flawed so therefore we must quickly make changes and move to yet another flawed system. If we are going to change the way we evaluate educators, let's do it the right way. Let standardized test scores be minimized, or better yet, no factor at all in any new evaluation system. Remember, assessment is supposed to be a diagnostic tool used to drive instruction, not used as a punitive measure to determine the value of teachers, children, and schools.
3. Experience Matters.
All the research shows that experience matters. If we want to make decisions about what teachers to keep in the profession, we have to look at what the research overwhelmingly shows: teachers with five or more years experience are better for children than teachers with less than five years experience. The Star Report highlights this particularly well because it does not just rely on test scores (which I mentioned already I question) but it also looks at adult income levels (not that I believe making money is the key to happiness, but it certainly is a key to survival and therefore the most basic measure of success). *(Research on teacher experience can be found at www.parentsacrossamerica.org.)
4. The attack on LIFO is quite simply union busting.
The corporate reformers who are behind the attack on LIFO and interestingly behind the two organizations featured on the TFA panel (Students First and E4E) are quite simply anti-union. A blind belief in the free market does not allow them to see beyond their own needs and benefits; it colors their lenses green with one central focus: money. Cost containment and unfettered top-down control are at the roots of the attack on LIFO and anyone who tells you otherwise either doesn't understand the issue or is engaging in misdirection. Getting rid of teacher protections is the only way that corporate reformers can continue to privatize our public education system. Unions are the only institution that can stand in their way, along with the voting public who are growing more aware of the true intentions of the corporate reformers. I believe there are well-intentioned people who support ending LIFO — dedicated teachers who inevitably have had to work with a teacher who was not as dedicated as them, as one example. But the drive to end LIFO (and the funding for it) is not coming from these teachers or from well-intentioned individuals. Rather it is born out of a national movement to change our school system into a 'portfolio', into a consumer-driven, profit margin aware, business-like entity. We are entering very dangerous territory. Just look at the number of stories emerging of abusive principals who target certain teachers who stand up to them or do not pay the proper fealty. When this happens to even one teacher it brings a cloud over the security of every teacher. Even if your current principal is fine, there are enough loose cannons out there and it takes just a change in leadership to turn a "safe" school into a school from hell. Let us remember why we have unions: protection. Let us remember why we must have these protections: a history of child labor, unsafe conditions, unfair wages, no healthcare, no pension or other retirement support mechanisms. Instead of attacking teachers for having union protections, we should be demanding that ALL workers have these protections.
5. Ending seniority rights will have a disproportionate and negative impact on our disappearing black and Latino educators.
Does racial discrimination still exist in our society? Contrary to what E4E's position paper on this issue falsely claims, under the Bloomberg Administration our Black and Latino teachers have been disappearing at an alarming rate (new hires of Black teachers dropped from 28% to under 14% over 8 years). Seniority rights is one of the last protections we have that we know for sure will maintain the tragically low number of Black and Latino teachers we have left. In a system that serves more than 80% children of color, it is unacceptable that more than 70% of its educators are white. In addition to this issue, we already have an attrition problem here in NYC, more than 40% of our teachers leave with less than six years in! Knowing the value of having Black and Latino teachers for Black and Latino students and knowing the value of experienced educators, it is quite shocking the focus is on how to get rid of teachers easier, rather than on how to attract and retain teachers in general, and particularly, teachers of color.
6. There is no legitimate evidence that seniority rights as a system-wide determinant for lay-offs has a negative impact on our public education system.
Yes, you can find anecdotal evidence to hold up a given less experienced educator next to a more experienced educator and say, given these two, the less experienced educator looks better. But system-wide the research clearly shows that is not true. When difficult decisions like layoffs must be made (which I would argue in this case are unnecessary and manipulated for political reasons) they have to be made on a system-wide basis — in the collective interest. We are moving into dangerous ground when the individual assumes more importance than the collective. The nature of our work as educators makes us very interconnected. How we value our schools, our teachers, and workers' rights are important factors in making sure we preserve our ability to build a society rather than simply a random assortment of individuals in competition with each other. Schools must be collaborative places. Schools must be places where educators feel safe to speak up and speak out.
Finally, let me talk about what I am for, and I hope that folks will join in this conversation, because if we don't propose the kinds of systems we would like for evaluations and lay-offs, the issue will be decided for us by people who have little knowledge or understanding. I will keep my thoughts very simple. Please, please share yours:
We should maintain seniority rights for lay-offs because it is the only objective way to release and re-hire teachers in an orderly and rational manner. The research shows that system-wide this is what benefits children because experience matters. This is the only way to ensure that lay-offs are not used politically or economically in order to cleanse the system of either outspoken or experienced/more expensive teachers. LIFO also protects even fairly new teachers, assuring even 2nd and 3rd year teachers they will keep their jobs over some first year teacher with "connections" while assuring an orderly call-back in case there are layoffs (which in fact there rarely ever been in the entire over hundred year history of the NYC school system.)
We must empower school-communities. We should look at Deb Meier's work in some of her pilot schools, and consider those models. I believe in school-based boards that are comprised of parents, teachers, school staff, and administration. I believe these boards should have oversight over teacher evaluation, administrator evaluation, and budgeting. I believe evaluations should be judged based on classroom observations, student input when appropriate, parent satisfaction, and some measure of data. I would like to see a teacher evaluated based on authentic student reading levels over a period of time along with portfolios of student work showing students' individual growth and progress rather than the snapshot we get from standardized test scores.
The views expressed here belong to Julie Cavanaugh. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.