Sweep The Leg Johnny!

I don’t mean to do Eduflack’s job for him, but I will point out that articles like this are simply brutal:

In 2004, Providence named a beloved biology teacher, John Wemple, Teacher of the Year. In the spring of that year, Amgen Corp. gave Wemple a $10,000 award for science teaching excellence. But shortly after, Providence laid him off from his job at Classical High. He’d been “bumped” by a teacher who had the right, thanks to state law, to displace a colleague with less seniority in the system. Wemple’s widely acknowledged merit counted for squat. A tony private school snapped him up.

If I were a strategy guy for the teachers’ unions I’d be trying hard to figure out an exit strategy on bumping and also on what to do about teachers who aren’t teaching for sustained periods of time. The greater data and transparency means these provisions are simply not tenable for much longer. And, this is a case where if they’re not careful the teachers’ unions are going to win a few battles but lose the war.

4 Replies to “Sweep The Leg Johnny!”

  1. This is a very complicated issue, which is really not advanced through reasoning-by-anecdote.

    The Rhee study that you’ve linked to is more of a data-oriented approach, but it has a fundamental flaw, which I will elaborate on below.

    But first, it’s necessary to differentiate between types of seniority-based transfer rights, in orughly ascending order of problematic-ness.

    1. “Excessed” Teacher Priority. Under these provisions, if a teacher within a district is laid off due to staff cuts, that techer will get priority if an opening comes up within the district.

    2. Seniority-based Preferences for Filling Openings. These rules simply say that if a school has an opening, and there are teachers within the district with seniority who want the position, the school has to hire from among those teachers, rather than taking new applicants.

    3. True “Bumping” Rights: Under this kind of rule, a teacher with seniority who wants to work in another school within the district can get the transfer, thus “bumping” any teacher with lesser seniority.

    Now, I find the last type of rule pretty indefensible. But the first two, especially the rule that gives a laid-off teacher with seniority preference, are facially pretty understandable. They both simply favor seniority in filling openings. It’s generally understood that — especially in teaching — there is some correlation between seniority (i.e., experience) and competence, and thus it is understandable why school districts would agree to such provisions.

    Hence, the burden on critics is to demonstrate why giving preference to senior teachers is a bad thing. And, while the slick Rhee study pruports to try to do that, they don’t really succeed.

    Simplifying things somewhat, what the Rhee study shows is that these rules restrain principals’ hiring choices. (To which I say, “duh.”) And it goes on to try to suggest that this is inherently detrimental to students. The problem is that the conclusion does not necessarily follow. It’s entirely possible, of course, but not relly proven. And the only datum that Rhee offers in support is that a majority of the principals did not want to hire the person with transfer rights. That’s a pretty thin reed on which to hang such a strong claim.

    The report also raises the prospect of schools engaging in “pass-the-trash” by encouraging their worst teachers to transfer. If true, that’s a real problem — and ultimately self-defeating, for if you game it out, every school is vulnerable to such “trash-passing.” It certainly seems possible that schools might do this, but again, Rhee doesn’t make an emipirical case for it.

    The sum is this: Rhee is claiming that these rule prevent schools from hiring the best teachers for openings. But the study makes no effort to try to assess the relative quality of teachers on transfer lists as opposed to new or out-of-district hires. To be sure that is a difficult thing to measure, but that difficulty does not excuse Rhee from coming up with some kind of measure, if she’s going to make the claim that the rules give us bad teachers and precent principals from hiring better teachers.

  2. Please excuse the more-atrocious-than-usual number of typos in the comment above. Someday, I will learn to proofread my comments before hitting “submit.” If you can forgive the typos, I would be veryinterested in any reactions from the blog’s host or readers.

  3. SD, taking your claims at face value, you seem to suggest that it is relatively common that a senior teacher is better for students than a younger colleague whom the principal would have preferred to hire. In other words, for your argument to work, we would need to stipulate not only that seniority correlates with effectiveness but that it correlates BETTER with effectiveness than administrator judgment and the host of factors, including seniority, which administrators take into account. Before I go on, I’d like to confirm that that’s what you mean.

  4. Well, the assumption governing seniority-based preferences of many kinds is that seniority has a decent — not perfect, mind you — correlation with quality. In teaching in particular, I would think experience to be a particularly important factor, given that good teaching requires so much more than mastery of a subject. I acknowledge, however, that I don’t have any data on this point.

    But I’m actually making a narrower point here, and I think I can make while remaining agnostic on the question whether seniority is a better guide than the host of factors that might guide a school administrator in making a hiring decision. That point is this: If one is going to publish a study purporting to show that children’s education is hurting because contract rules favor seniority in a way that narrows a principal’s hiring choices — and at times removes any choice whatsoever — I would think that the burden is on that party to show the rules in fact are causing bad education outcomes. I don’t think it’s enough to say that x percentage of principals would have made a different hiring choice but for the seniority rules (if that were not the case, the rule would be superfluous). No, such a study, to be useful here, would need to demonstrate that the net result has been the hiring of more bad tachers than would have resulted otherwise. Unless you assume that principals’ hiring choices are infallible, the Rhee study just doesn’t seem to get there.

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