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?

Hardly.

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.”

Advertisements

The Romney Education Plan: ‘Get the teacher unions out’

by Christopher Paslay

Mitt Romney’s school reform plan calls for confronting unions, ignoring class size, and discounting teacher experience.    

Mitt Romney’s new message on the education front is his pledge to take on teachers unions in an effort to—cue the Michelle Rhee drum roll—put students first!  “We have got to put the kids first and put these teachers unions behind,” Romney said recently on Fox News Sunday.  “. . . I want there to be action taken to get the teacher unions out and to get the kids once again receiving the education they need.” 

If I didn’t know any better, I’d think Romney had just finished watching Waiting for Superman.  His belief that teachers unions are stopping public school children from receiving proper educations scores a “10” on the cliché meter and shows just how lazy he’s been when it comes to rolling up his sleeves and doing some real, evidence-based research into the many challenges facing America’s public schools. 

Teachers Unions: The Root of All Evil?

Since Romney deals in clichés (and fails to acknowledge all the good things teachers unions have done over the past 150 years, like improve conditions in schools, upgrade curriculum and teacher credentials, and make it so every child can learn to read and write, regardless of race, social class, and gender) let’s analyze the three most fashionable criticisms of teachers unions: that they give bad teachers a lifetime appointment in the classroom; that they receive cushy contracts from politicians in exchange for political support; and that they stand in the way of progress.               

As I’ve written about before (see “Ending the Myth That Tenure Protects Bad Teachers,” 3/20/12), public schools are self-regulating: teacher turnover is costing America over $7 billion annually; 17 percent of all of public school teachers quit every year; 56 percent of America’s new teachers quit within five years; and over one-quarter of America’s public school teachers have five years experience or less.  Where is the “lifetime appointment”?      

Here are the numbers behind the “cushy contracts” garnered by unions: the median salary of kindergarten teachers in 2011 was $31,500; for elementary school teachers it was $49,200; and for high school teachers it was $52,700.  As for benefits, most public school employees contribute to their pensions and medical insurance (teachers in Pennsylvania contribute 7.5 percent of every check to their pension).  This can hardly be considered “cushy”.               

As for standing in the way of progress, teachers unions opposed No Child Left Behind (but this didn’t stop it from being passed), a school reform bill that has been criticized by educational policy experts across the political spectrum for it’s over reliance on flawed test data and the narrowing of school curriculum; Romney himself said it needs to be significantly changed and reauthorized.  NCLB has been in place since 2002—over a decade—and the racial achievement gap hasn’t changed, nor has the achievement gap between the rich and the poor; the wealth gap has gotten bigger.

Teachers unions also oppose taking public tax dollars and putting them into privately operated charter schools (but this hasn’t stopped every state in America from doing it), a practice that has gotten mixed results at best. Charter schools perform no better academically than traditional schools, yet have the luxury of removing failing or disruptive students.  Financial mismanagement and lack of oversight are recurring problems for charters, and growing research is showing they are not equitable—English language learners, special needs students, and minorities are being weeded out.

Is this the “progress” critics of unions are talking about?   

 Teacher Pay: Old vs. New

Romney wants to pay new teachers more.  “We should pay our beginning teachers more,” Romney said at a recent campaign stop in Illinois. “The national unions are too interested in benefits for the older teachers.”

By “older teachers” does Romney mean the ones with the most skills and experience?  The ones that have dedicated their entire careers to their students and survived the poorest neighborhoods with the least amount of resources?  The ones that have for years paid out of their own pocket for classroom materials, endured the insanity of misguided school reform, forged lasting relationships with their students, and saved the lives of some of America’s most troubled youth?  Those “older teachers”?             

By “beginning teachers” does Romney mean the ones with less than five years experience?  The ones that studies show are still learning their craft and struggle with instruction and classroom management?  By “beginning teachers” does Romney mean the ones who enter the profession through Teach for America, over half of which quit in two years?  Or those who enter the field via the traditional route, over half of which quit in five years?    

 Class Size

Romney doesn’t think class size matters.  In other words, he doesn’t feel the need to increase educational funding, or worry about per pupil spending.  “I studied [class size],” Romney said in Illinois.  “There was no relationship between classroom size and how the kids did.” 

Really?  So there’s no difference between teaching a class of 33 or 23?  No difference in classroom management?  No difference in the amount of time for individualized instruction?  No difference in time for grading papers and contacting parents?  Or the money needed for resources and supplies?  Money for paper?  Books?  Laptops?  Field trips?  No difference between 23 and 33, huh?             

There is, of course, plenty of research that says class size does matter, like the U.S. Department of Education’s report analyzing the multitude of benefits achieved via Bill Clinton’s National Class Size Reduction Program.  And then there’s the State of Tennessee’s STAR report.    

From his recent remarks on the campaign trail it’s become obvious that Mitt Romney has limited knowledge of public education in America, and is simply using talking points to pander to his base.  Either way, he’s alienating millions of hard working school teachers across the country, and putting politics ahead of the educational interest of our nation’s children.

Ending the Myth That Tenure 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 collective bargaining are keeping large numbers of burned-out, incompetent teachers in classrooms where they rob students of their right to learn.  The Philadelphia Inquirer’s editorial “Firing bad teachers” is a case in point:

“One way to improve public education is to speed up the process to remove bad teachers from the classroom.

Unfortunately, getting rid of bad apples has become nearly impossible under union tenure rules that were crafted to protect teachers’ rights but too often deny children a decent education.

The antiquated system fails to hold teachers with a bad performance record accountable. They should not be allowed to wear tenure like a badge of honor that entitles them to a lifetime appointment in the classroom.”

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

Hardly. 

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 collective bargaining by unions, 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 rife with deadwood?  Is our country’s unacceptable obesity rate an indictment of American nutritionists?   

Interestingly, school teachers and their unions remain society’s whipping boy.  Dom Giordano’s recent commentary, “To help Philadelphia students learn better, let’s start grading teachers,” is a prime example:     

“Unfortunately, that is why you have schools in which an all-star teacher is helping children learn and excel; next door, an incompetent teacher is protected by collective bargaining and is allowed to give kids an inferior education. We are told by their union that no difference exists. Tell that to the parents of kids stuck with the inferior teachers.”

Incompetent teacher right next door, protected by union tenure?  Sounds like someone needs to call the cliché police on Mr. Giordano, and quick.  The chances are the teacher in Giordano’s example doesn’t even exist, and if he does, the odds are that he’ll eventually be run out of his classroom by displeased parents, an angry principal, or the draining effects of disruptive students.    

Scrapping tenure isn’t going to improve the quality of America’s teachers, although it may do irreparable harm to our nation’s best educators.  Collective bargaining is simply no match for the Darwinian principle of Natural Selection.

Experienced teachers are not the problem

Michelle Rhee, the former Washington public schools chief whose draconian management style got her forced out, recently paid a visit to Simon Gratz High School in Philadelphia. Her main order of business was to push her school reform agenda, including a direct assault on Pennsylvania’s “last in, first out,” or LIFO, rule for teacher layoffs. . . .

This is an excerpt from my commentary in yesterday’s Philadelphia Inquirer, “Experienced teachers are not the problem.”  Please click here to read the entire article.  You can respond or provide feedback by clicking on the comment button below.

Thanks for reading.

–Christopher Paslay