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Seniority

  • Developing Workplaces Where Teachers Stay, Improve, And Succeed

    Written on May 28, 2015

    ** Republished here in the Washington Post

    Our guest authors today are Matthew A. Kraft and John P. Papay. Kraft is an Assistant Professor of Education at Brown University. Papay is an Assistant Professor of Education and Economics at Brown University. In 2015, they received the American Educational Research Association Palmer O. Johnson Memorial Award for the research discussed in this essay. 

    When you study education policy, the inevitable question about what you do for a living always gets the conversation going. Controversies over teachers unions, charter schools, and standardized testing provide plenty of fodder for lively debates. People often are eager to share their own experiences about individual teachers who profoundly shaped their lives or were less than inspiring.

    A large body of research confirms this common experience – teachers have large effects on students’ learning, and some teachers are far more effective than others. What is largely absent in these conversations, and in the scholarly literature, is a recognition of how these teachers are also supported or constrained by the organizational contexts in which they teach.

    The absence of an organizational perspective on teacher effectiveness leads to narrow dinner conversations and misinformed policy. We tend to ascribe teachers’ career decisions to the students they teach rather than the conditions in which they work. We treat teachers as if their effectiveness is mostly fixed, always portable, and independent of school context. As a result, we rarely complement personnel reforms with organizational reforms that could benefit both teachers and students.

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  • The New Layoff Formula Project

    Written on April 27, 2011

    In a previous post about seniority-based layoffs, I argued that, although seniority may not be the optimal primary factor upon which to base layoff decisions, we do not yet have an acceptable alternative in most places—one that would permit the “quality-based” layoffs that we often hear mentioned. In short, I am completely receptive to other layoff criteria, but insofar as new teacher evaluation systems are still in the design phase in most places, states and districts might want to think twice before chucking a longstanding criterion that has (at least some) evidence of validity before they have a workable replacement.

    The New Teacher Project (TNTP) recently released a short policy brief outlining a proposed alternative. Let’s take a quick look at what they have to offer.

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  • In Performance Evaluations, Subjectivity Is Not Random

    Written on March 18, 2011

    Employment policies associated with unions – e.g., seniority, salary schedules – are frequently criticized for not placing the highest premium on performance. Detractors also argue that such policies, originally designed to protect workers against discrimination (by gender, race, etc.), are no longer necessary now that federal laws are in place. Accordingly, those seeking to limit collective bargaining among teachers have proposed that current policies be replaced by “performance-based” evaluations – or at least a system that would make it easier to reward and punish based on performance.

    Be careful, argues Samuel A. Culbert in a recent New York Times article, “Why Your Boss is Wrong About You." Culbert warns that there are serious risks to deregulating the employment relationship, and leaving it even partially in the hands of the employer and his/her performance review:

    Now, maybe your boss is all-knowing. But I’ve never seen one that was. In a self-interested world, where imperfect people are judging other imperfect people, anybody reviewing somebody else’s performance ... is subjective.
    This viewpoint may sound obvious, but social science research reminds us that the whims of subjective human judgment are not random. The inefficiencies that Culbert mentions are inevitable, but so is the fact that bias tends to operate in a manner that disproportionately affects workers from traditionally disadvantaged social groups, such as women and African Americans. What’s worse – it’s just as likely to occur within as between groups, and we often do it without realizing.
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  • Would The New York City Layoffs Hurt Poor Schools More?

    Written on March 1, 2011

    As first reported by the New York Times, the New York City Department of Education released a dataset this past Sunday, which lists the number of potential teacher layoffs that would occur in each school absent a budget infusion.

    Layoffs are a terrible thing for schools and students, and this list is sobering. But the primary impetus for releasing for this dataset appears to be the city’s ongoing push to end so-called seniority-based layoffs, and its support for seniority-ending legislation that is now making its way through the state legislature. One of the big talking points on this issue has always been that layoffs that take experience into account would hurt high-poverty schools the most, because these schools tend to have the least experienced teachers. As I discussed in a prior post, Michelle Rhee is making this argument everywhere she goes, and it was one of the primary themes in a new report by the New Teacher Project (released last week). Although I have not heard city officials use the argument since the database was released over the weekend, similar assertions have very recently been made by Mayor Bloomberg, former Chancellor Joel Klein, and current Chancellor Cathie Black.

    I find all this a bit curious, given that the best research on the topic finds that the argument is untrue (including a study of New York City, and a statewide analysis of Washington [also here]). Now, it is at least possible that, if layoffs were conducted strictly on the basis of seniority, higher-poverty schools could end up bearing the brunt of dismissals. This is almost never the case, however – layoffs in almost every district proceed based on a variety of criteria, among which seniority is only one (albeit often the most important).

    It is fortuitous, then, that the city’s dataset provides an opportunity to test the claim that the “worst-case scenario” – over 4,500 layoffs using current New York City procedures – would hurt high-poverty schools the most. Let’s take a look.

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  • Students First, Facts Later

    Written on February 25, 2011

    On Wednesday, Michelle Rhee’s new organization, Students First, rolled out its first big policy campaign: It’s called “Save Great Teachers," and it is focused on ending so-called “seniority-based layoffs."

    Rhee made several assertions at the initial press conference and in an accompanying op-ed in the Atlanta Constitution Journal (and one on CNN.com). At least three of these claims address the empirical research on teacher layoffs and quality. Two are false; the other is misleading. If history is any guide, she is certain to repeat these “findings” many times in the coming months.

    As discussed in a previous post, I actually support the development of a better alternative to seniority-based layoffs, but I am concerned that the debate is proceeding as if we already have one (most places don't), and that there's quite a bit of outrage-inspiring misinformation flying around on this topic. So, in the interest of keeping the discussion honest, as well as highlighting a few issues that bear on the layoff debate generally, I do want to try and correct Rhee preemptively.

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  • A Quality-Based Look At Seniority-Based Layoffs

    Written on February 4, 2011

    ** Also posted here on “Valerie Strauss’ Answer Sheet” in the Washington Post

    Eliminating seniority-based layoffs is a policy idea that is making the rounds these days, with proponents making special appeals to cash-strapped states and districts desperately looking for ways to save money while minimizing decreases in the quality of services.  Mayors, editorial boards, and others have joined in the chorus.

    There’s a few existing high-quality simulations that compare seniority-based layoffs with one alternative – laying off based on teachers’ value-added scores (most recently, one analysis of Washington State and another using data from New York City; both are worth reading).  Unsurprisingly, the simulations show that the two policies would not lay off the same teachers, and that the seniority-based layoffs would save less money for the same number of dismissals (since the least experienced teachers are paid less).  In addition, the teachers laid off based on seniority have lower average value-added scores than those laid off based on those value-added scores (as would inevitably be the case).

    Based in part on these and other analyses, critics have a pretty solid argument on the surface: Seniority makes us “fire good teachers” simply because they don’t have enough experience, and we can fire fewer teachers if we use “quality” instead of seniority. 

    To be clear: I think that there is a sound case for exploring alternatives to seniority-based layoffs, but many of the recent arguments for so-called “quality-based” layoffs have been so simplistic and reactionary that they may actually serve to deter serious conversations about how to change these practices.

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  • The Teaching Experience

    Written on November 18, 2010

    ** Also posted here on “Valerie Strauss’ Answer Sheet” in the Washington Post.

    The topic of teacher experience is getting a lot of attention in education debates.  In part, this makes sense, since experience (years of service) does play several important roles in education policy, including teachers’ raises and transfer/layoff policies. 

    Usually, experience is discussed in terms of its relationship to performance –whether more experienced teachers produce larger student test score gains than less experienced teachers.  There is a pretty impressive body of research on this topic, the findings of which are sometimes used to argue for policy changes that eliminate the role of experience in salary and other employment policies.  Proponents of these changes often argue that experience is only weakly related to performance, and therefore shouldn’t be used in determining salary and other conditions of work.  It is not unusual to hear people say that experience doesn’t matter at all.

    As is often the case when empirical research finds its way into policy debates, the “weakly related” characterization of the findings on the experience/achievement relationship borders on oversimplification, while the claim that experience doesn’t matter is flat-out wrong.  The relationship is substantial but context-dependent, and blanket statements about it often hide as much as they reveal.

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