Ending the Myth That Seniority Protects Bad Teachers

by Christopher Paslay

High teacher attrition rates show that tenure is not preventing the bad apples from being weeded out.        

There’s a very real belief in the United States that tenure and seniority are keeping large numbers of burned-out, incompetent teachers in classrooms where they rob students of their right to learn.  The National Council on Teacher Quality’s new report “Teacher Quality Roadmap: Improving Policies and Practices in the School District of Philadelphia” is a case in point.  According to the Inquirer, the report stated:

Tenure and satisfactory evaluations are virtually meaningless for Philadelphia educators, and bad teachers can linger in the public school system too long. . . . Teacher pay ought to be revamped to keep strong performers, and effectiveness, not start date, should guide layoff decisions.

Does tenure provide lousy teachers with a lifetime appointment in the classroom?


The truth is that it’s extremely difficult for an incompetent teacher to remain in the classroom for an extended period of time in the 21st century.  The idea that American public schools are housing a significant population of burned-out educators milking the system just isn’t true.

A closer look at teacher attrition rates—as well as the profiles of America’s teachers—yields interesting results.  Here are some statistics from the 2007 policy brief “The High Cost of Teacher Turnover” and the report “Profiles of Teachers in the U.S. 2011”:

  • Teacher turnover is costing America $7.3 billion annually
  • 17% of all of public school teachers quit every year
  • 20 percent of urban teachers quit yearly
  • Over half of America’s new teachers (56%) quit within five years
  • In Philadelphia from 1999 to 2005, the teacher turnover rate (70%) was higher than the student dropout rate (42%)
  • In 2011, over a quarter of America’s public school teachers (26%) had five years experience or less
  • 21% of America’s public school teachers are 29 years old or younger

Teacher attrition is similar when it comes to alternative certification programs and charter schools.  Over 50% of Teach for America educators leave their assignments after two years.  A study tracking teachers working for KIPP schools (Knowledge is Power Program) in the Bay Area revealed annual turnover rates which ranged from 18 percent to 49 percent from 2003-04 to 2007-08.

The truth is, despite teacher tenure and seniority, public schools are not overpopulated with long term educational louses hiding in the cracks.  In fact, the notion that tenure creates a lifetime appointment for teacher incompetence is greatly exaggerated.

America’s public school system is self-regulating.  In other words, incompetent teachers don’t last very long, as the above data shows.  The biggest factor driving bad teachers from the classroom are the kids themselves.  If teachers can’t connect with their students, if they argue, butt heads, and create a toxic learning environment, the odds are they won’t survive.  It’s too draining a situation—physically, mentally, and emotionally.

The same is true for parents and school administrators.  Incompetent teachers are in constant disharmony with the mothers and fathers of their pupils and spend the majority of their energy battling principals.  Couple this with more rigorous classroom observations and school overhauls at the hands of No Child Left Behind, and most so-called “lousy” teachers are at the breaking point; it is all but impossible for them to hang on to their jobs for “life”.

Bad teachers do exist, of course, but in no greater quantity than in any other profession.  You can argue test scores prove the existence of bad teachers—that an unacceptable percentage of students aren’t reading or doing math at grade-level—but does this prove teachers are lousy or incompetent?  Does the fact that homicide rates in big cities are unacceptable prove our police force is loaded with deadwood?  Is our country’s unacceptable obesity rate an indictment of American nutritionists?

The National Council on Teacher Quality’s new report, in fact, recycles an old argument, one that Michelle Rhee, former Washington public schools chief, has been pushing for some time.  In a November 2011 Inquirer commentary headlined “Experienced teachers aren’t the problem,” I refuted her claim:

Rhee insisted that Last In, First Out laws are getting rid of our best teachers, arguing that layoffs should be based on job performance instead of seniority. . . . The authors [of the study Rhee quotes] do admit, however, that first-year teachers are generally ineffective, and that it takes a teacher an average of five or more years to become skilled. This is not surprising: New teachers tend to struggle with classroom management, they lack experience and objectivity, and they have yet to perfect their instruction methods.

. . . If all the teachers in a particular school are rated effective, what’s to stop a principal from balancing the budget by laying off the highest-paid teachers and keeping the least expensive ones? What would protect experienced teachers from politically motivated reprisals if they encourage their students to think critically about school reform and other public policies? And what will keep the new teachers we’re relying on from constantly leaving the system? In my 15 years with the Philadelphia School District, I’ve watched at least a dozen Teach for America educators leave after fulfilling their two-year contracts, off to use their urban teaching experience as resumé padding.

“Last in, first out” isn’t causing us to lose our best teachers. Far from it. Ending seniority-based layoffs might occasionally save a young talent. But it would also harm teacher morale, leave experienced teachers vulnerable to budget cuts and experimental reforms, and populate our schools with inexperienced teachers who are likely to leave.

Scrapping seniority isn’t going to improve the quality of America’s teachers, although it may do irreparable harm to our city’s best educators.

*This blog post is an adaption from a 3/20/12 post titled, “Ending the Myth that Tenure Protects Bad Teachers.”

6 thoughts on “Ending the Myth That Seniority Protects Bad Teachers

  1. The reality is that increasing administrative measures against teachers are driving teachers OUT of teaching. The unfortunate aspect of the national effort to “improve” education is that it is responsible for driving more teachers out of the profession. Students have seen this as well. They have been actively engaged in getting rid of teachers with higher standards for their own purposes. Committed teachers are being given clearly the message: We don’t need you, we don’t want you. There is a point where they get the message.

  2. Teachers that come through TFA leave because our whole society receives the messaging that our job is like doing service, doing your time, doing what you can to give back to society. Not a profession that requires a complex skill set and many years of experience.

  3. Many good points here–particularly for Title I, city schools where attrition rates are ridiculously high. I was at my school for 3 years and was considered the “old veteran” simply because most of the other secondary school teachers had left.

    I wonder however whether “seniority” is really the measuring agent here in terms of firing teachers? I actually think much of what Gates and other organizations have put forward in terms of teacher-evaluation measures to be fair and don’t see why these measures themselves would target senior teachers? The fact remains that in the overwhelming majority of this country’s school districts, years on the job stands as the single-most predictor of salary for teachers and that is not right. If, following the hypothetical, all the teachers in a school are rated equally effective (aside from this likely being a gross mis-admininstration of such evaluations) then, no, there this issue of seniority plays a role….the higher earners cannot immediately be cut. But based on Chris’ theory about years on the job, these higher earners should be scoring higher already? This post seems to really be about whether these evaluative measures will be administered fairly and weighed consistently and knowing what I know regarding the capacities of Philly public school admin, I wouldn’t count on it.

  4. Chris, you are absolutely right on this issue. Seniority is not the problem. Preservation of seniority is crucial and necessary to prevent the capriciousness of administrators, some who sadly would choose to keep certain teachers based on their race or how much butt-kissing they do. I’ve witnessed it. It would be a huge mistake to give principals more power, when so many of them are ineffective, not too bright and wouldn’t know a good teacher if they fell over one.

  5. Why assume these teachers are leaving because they’re “bad teachers being weeded out”? They’re probably great teachers who are fed up with the constant frustration of “teaching to the test.” The current educational system is destroying the “will to live” of many fine teachers I know, nationwide.

  6. Very true, Maya. Great teachers are also fed up with the lack of support from school administration, which blames them for everything. Guest teacher, my principal publicly commended one teacher for “excellence in teaching” who stands at her door each day and hands out worksheets. I agree that he and other principals are not qualified to evaluate good teaching. Giving them even more power would be disastrous.

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