Friday, April 15, 2011

Teacher Defends Seniority Rights

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:

1. Lay-offs
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.)

2. Evaluations
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 gemnyc@gmail.com.

12 comments:

  1. Julie: Thanks for your post. Good to have the insight of an actual public school teacher (rather than the usual policy pundits) on the issue of seniority and layoffs.

    I'd like to add that the public often appears confused regarding the difference between a layoff and firing a teacher for cause. A layoff is supposed to occur when the budget and/or student enrollment forces the school to cut its teacher workforce. In some places, this may happen more frequently and in other places it occurs rarely, if at all. Teacher evaluations, tenure decisions, and firing for cause should be a separate process, not tied to budget reasons. If a teacher is performing poorly, the school district shouldn't wait 10 years for a budget crisis to take action. In addition, a district-wide layoff should not be an excuse for a principal to fire any teacher they want, for any reason (which could happen if LIFO is repealed).

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  2. Don't blame Julie for LIFO tag. I edited the piece and LIFO seems like such an easy tag to use, though as you point out, I wouldn't want to come down with a case of it.

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  3. I'm a free market libertarian Republican who has been attracted to your blog by your good sense, sharp writing, and level-headedness. I'm not in the education industry, but am interested in the topic.

    The above arguments boil down to: the senior management are incompetent or possibly dishonest people, seniority hasn't been proven to be a bad way to run things, and other systems may be / are worse. These are all arguments about organizational efficacy.

    As an entrepreneur, I may be sympathetic to some of those arguments (yes, big org management bureaucracies make foolish decisions!), but I am wondering about the systematic similarities between the institution of education and other institutions in terms of its organizational effectiveness. (I'll reveal my biases in that I'm in favor of a free market system with public funding -- choice would ultimately make students more successful, teachers happier and richer, and our society better off -- but let's not get on to that topic at the moment.)

    There are many other areas of life in which a more experienced person is tasked with educating / training / teaching another person: flight training, language instruction, adult learning, personal trainers at the gym, religious instruction, gymnastics or swimming lessons, Six Sigma black belt training, or, as it happens to be in the case of my company, training people to do their job search more effectively.

    In none of these organizations, so far as I know, has a company or institution chosen to pursue the route of paying and retaining its educators / teachers / trainers primarily on the basis of seniority. If that is the case (and I'm open to hearing of counter-examples), two questions arise:

    1) Are they incompetent businesspeople / administrators who haven't (yet) discovered the superior efficacy of seniority for their organization?
    2) Would a new institution focused on providing instruction or teaching via seniority-based systems produce superior outcomes, and thus, presumably, be more popular in hte maketplace and more successful?

    I hope as a fan who is perhaps a bit outside of the world of the rest of your readers, that my comments will be taken in the spirit given - a genuine pursuit of knowledge - rather than as a representative of some contrary interest.

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  4. Teaching kids is inefficient and messy. Few of them are at the same spot academically, so regulating anything will allow for some to fall through the cracks. Like Jews, how ever many are in the room is how many opinions (or academic levels) there are (I'm a Jew, I can say that).

    Schools don't turn out products, or really even a service. They provide an opportunity. Those who have parents who instilled a sense of curiosity and love into them will be happy and successful in any classroom. The impoverished kids, who start out with smaller vocabularies than their well cared for peers, and who suffer dental problems and hunger will fare much worse.

    And schools are now involved in such a rigorous testing regime that no child who is behind will ever get the help he needs because he won't help the school's AYP (average yearly progress) or keep them out of PI (program improvement) status. I just wrote a long blog post about an A student who was asked to take a test prep class in order to raise the school's AYP. The teacher told him so, but the principal wouldn't admit it ( http://goo.gl/R98H7 ).

    Business are, by law, supposed to maximize profits. Schools are supposed to support children in pursuing a well-rounded education. At least that's what they used to do.

    And when school budgets are decimated the school has to reduce costs, so they use LIFO as the fairest way to perform the horrendous budget cut. Only someone without common sense, or in denial, would claim that older more experienced teachers should be fired because the young ones are better; it's not true nor is it supported in the research literature. But, that isn't stopping Michelle Rhee and her funders from constantly stating that lie.

    That's my 2 cents, Marc.

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  5. Marc - THanks so much for commenting. I sincerely appreciate your willingness to dialogue. I can't speak for Julie, but I can ask her to comment, or you can email her.

    However, as a teacher in favor of seniority, I am in favor of it only given our current system. The current reform movement promotes the positioning of educationally incompetent management types in positions of leadership. Their goal is often to cut costs and raise test scores. Experience tells me that raising test scores is not only NOT in line with excellent education, it's often antithetical to it. I strongly believe an excellent educational leader should have a significant background in the field, as with any organizational leader.

    Find me a system that does not rely on test scores and incompetent leadership to make decisions about which teachers to keep and which teachers to fire, and I'd be significantly more open to ending seniority rights. You're right; it has a lot to do with the amount of trust many teachers (especially in high-profile districts) have in their leadership - sadly, it's very little.

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  6. Marc: I agree with TFT and RE's comments, above. I'd also like to add the following, based on my experience as a former teacher who has worked in several office jobs: In schools, the principal has MUCH less direct observation and/or interaction with the employees than in a typical office setting. In most businesses (in my experience), there is a relatively low supervisor/employee ratio (one department head for a department of 10-12 people). In a business, the managers and employees tend to work near each other and frequently on the same or overlapping projects.

    In a school, one principal is in charge of perhaps 70 - 100 employees (teachers, aides, janitors, etc.) and they all work spread out in dozens of rooms across the building or campus. As a practical matter, principals have little chance to see how much work an individual teacher is doing, or consult with the teachers about their classes.

    In my experience, most principals want three things from their teachers (and none of the top three are 'great teaching'): (1) No parent complaints; (2) No kids sent to the office; (3) No open challenges to the principal's policies. Honestly, that's about it. In testing grades/subjects, the principals may also care about test scores (though not necessarily the type of teaching that creates the scores). And I can't blame the individual principals -- that's what happens in a system where the principal has many responsibilities and is in charge of a large staff, with little time on a regular basis to meet with or observe the teachers at their jobs. Even if a principal had more time to devote to teacher observation, it would still present difficulties because different teacher are assigned different classes and have different challenges: How do you compare the efficacy of a teacher of AP students to the teacher down the hall with severely emotionally disabled students? Particularly because any given principal has usually only taught one or two subjects himself prior to becoming an administrator (e.g., math and science, but not English or special education).

    These are just some of the reasons why the argument that teachers should be 'held accountable' like employees in a private business falls flat.

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  7. My point (above) is that, in light of these factors, many teachers are understandably reluctant to trust their principal to make an informed decision about laying off teachers during a RIF -- who knows who the principal would pick to lay off or why? In lieu of any better option, I support retaining the LIFO system in the case of a budget shortfall, rather than allowing individual principals unfettered decision-making power to lay off whomever they want.

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  8. What if a teacher that has been in the school for only a few years is clearly better than a teacher who has been in the school for 20 years? How does that benefit the students?

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  9. Oscar: I agree that it seems unfair if a new teacher who is "clearly better" than a senior teacher must leave during a RIF. However, please keep in mind that we are only talking about the (pretty rare) Reduction-In-Force scenarios where a school must cut teachers due to budget concerns. MOST teachers who leave the profession do so for other reasons (poor evaluations, desire to work in another profession, moving, etc.).

    My reluctance to give principals unfettered decision-making power in a RIF is that principals (especially those in low-income schools where there is frequent staff turnover) often don't know who the 'good' teachers are: If they are permitted to lay off any teachers they want in the event of a RIF (no questions asked), there is no guarantee that the principal will retain a 'clearly better' teacher and lay off a 'clearly worse' teacher. Instead, I believe there is a great likelihood that the principal will use the RIF to keep the teachers that he personally likes (including those who don't bother him with sending kids to the office or those who support his policies).

    Frankly, I don't trust a principal to accurately evaluate his staff and to make thoughtful, informed decisions with regard to layoffs. This is especially true in low-performing schools with significant turnover, because the principal often has only worked with the staff for a brief period and, therefore, has very little information about the quality of each individual teacher (compared to a more stable school where the principal and teachers may work together for 10 or 15 years).

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  10. I'd also like to point out that evaluations of teachers by principals (especially in schools where the teacher and/or principal has only worked for a brief period) may be very unreliable.

    One example that comes to mind is an experience I had teaching in a low-income school in California. At the beginning of the year there were several newly hired teachers (myself included). I was assigned to teach honors classes while the new teacher across the hall from me was assigned general ed/remedial classes (populated by many of the lowest income students, often who had significant behavior problems). When a school administrator would occasionally pop her head in to see how the classes were going, my class looked great: The kids were all on task, busily completing their assignments and paying attention. However, the other class often appeared chaotic, with students acting out, not concentrating on the lesson, and frequently being sent out of the room for behavioral issues. I wouldn't be surprised if, in the event of a layoff, the principal decided, based on these brief observations by her VP, that I was a better teacher and decided to keep me but lay off my co-worker. However, this would have been unfair because we were teaching very different populations. There's a pretty good chance that if they released her and hired another teacher the next year, that teacher would also struggle with these very difficult students.

    This is just another reason why I hesitate to embrace any slap-dash teacher evaluation system, or allowing principals to make snap judgments about teachers in the event of a RIF. There are just too many factors at work, and the principal's judgment is likely to be unreliable (if not overtly biased).

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  11. Of course she defends lifo..That keeps the unfit in and new blood out.

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