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Sunday, June 27, 2010

Seniority and Layoffs

by folkbum

It's really hard to know where to start on today's Alan Borsuk piece.

He's writing about the Milwaukee Public Schools layoffs (a common topic ... speaking of which, have you signed the petition yet?), with the near-ubiquitous commentariat point of view that layoffs should not be done based on seniority.

I oppose the layoffs, to be sure, and I know that among the 480 or so teachers lost, there were many great ones. (The home-ec teacher was laid off from my school, for example, and she had nearly 20 years in the district, and the kids and the rest of the staff loved her.) The best hope for bringing them back is a federal bailout--complain all you want about deficit spending, but at least this particular bill we'll stick our children with is going to be spent on them rather than on airlines or autos or banks. It would also be nice of MPS actually sat down at the bargaining table with its union instead of bargaining in the media. All of these are too much to hope for, I know, I know. But back to Borsuk.

Without seriously addressing the complications of changing a system--I'll get to them in a minute, because I believe they need addressing--Borsuk offers three bullet points suggesting why laying off the least-senior teachers solely for that reason is a bad idea:
• Dimming the appeal of teaching: Not hiring new teachers has ripple effects that go beyond the immediate situation. How do you draw high-quality people to teaching when they don't have confidence in the prospects for jobs, no matter how good they are at it, a college president asked me the other day in an informal conversation. It's hard enough to get people interested in teaching, particularly top-shelf college students. Widespread layoffs targeting new teachers only make that worse.

• Putting out the unwelcome mat: Finishing its first year in Milwaukee, Teach for America, the Peace Corps-like effort that places high-quality college graduates in high-needs schools for two years, has numbers to show that, overall, the members working in MPS moved their students forward at a good pace, often more than a year's progress in a year. Twenty-four of the 37--all who were not in special education or bilingual jobs, basically--got layoff notices. Many of them may end up in charter schools and alternative schools rather than general MPS schools. Fifty more members being readied to work this fall are likely to end up in special ed or in schools not staffed by MPS employees. Teach for America is controversial, and its members don't want to be treated differently than other young teachers. But TFA offers fresh commitment, energy and quality to MPS--an offer that is in danger of, in effect, being spurned.

• Disrupting school communities: Many MPS schools are losing at least several teachers. Ask principals how they feel about this happening with no attention to who among the staff would actually be best to keep around next year. You're not likely to get cheerful answers. One potential twist to this: Some teachers will get called back at the last minute and assigned to different schools or grades, starting the year with almost no chance to prepare. A successful school almost always has a staff that works well together. These kinds of disruptions hurt efforts to build that.
The seniority rules at MPS have no impact on any of these, or at least, if changed, would not have the opposite effect. For example, the first. This past school year at my high school, there were five student teachers in my department. All five spread applications far and wide across the state--that is, on the rare occasions open positions were posted around the state. Just one had a job last I heard. The current crisis in school funding and school staffing is not limited to MPS. In fact, I am certain that MPS will have more first-year teachers in its classrooms come fall than any other Wisconsin district, and probably more than all 25 of its neighboring districts combined. No one is hiring anywhere, and it can't be because the Milwaukee teachers union has its grubby mitts in districts everywhere, can it?

Or the second. I have come to appreciate Teach for America's recruitment and training regimen moreso than traditional schools of education, and I would like to see it used to recruit teachers who aren't on two-year contracts building a resume before hitting grad school or some other career. But you can't convince me either A) that an organization as savvy as TfA didn't know what it was getting into when it signed up for Milwaukee, with its budget and enrollment situation, or that 2) keeping the laid off TfA members for the second year of their two-year contract (and who, TfA's own data show, are likely then to leave the district anyway) is a better investment than keeping someone who has made a commitment to this city and its schools.

Or the third. Is there a way to remove any teacher without disrupting a community? And is there any reason to believe that "asking principals how they feel" will result in the best-staffed schools? Borsuk knows as well as anyone that the biggest example of rolling up the welcome mat in MPS in the last few years is what MPS did to New Leaders for New Schools. A national program designed to recruit, train, and retain top-notch school principals came to MPS at our urging, and bailed as of the end of this year. Why? Because MPS used and abused the "new leaders" and refused to follow the program's protocol. What MPS ended up with was, rather than a corps of energetic, young, talented leaders, a pool of principals perpetuating the poor leadership MPS has known for the last decade. Even when MPS managed to get one right, as happened at Dover St. School this year when a new leader actually did the job shadowing and training to take over from a principal who was retiring, MPS kicked the new leader out in favor of a displaced "leadership specialist" from Central Office (yes, some people there have lost their positions, regardless of what you may have heard about their job security). This has disrupted a school community, I kid you not.

But my point in all of that is that principals are not always the best impartial judges of who stays and goes. Principals bring with them coteries of friends and colleagues when they change buildings, if they can. (Some day I will tell you how I lost my department chairmanship the year I left Madison.) Principals will move squeaky wheels in favor of compliant ones. (I had a principal threaten me because I asserted my rights under the contract, about something not related to the classroom.) And principals do not take seriously their role in evaluating teachers. I personally was observed, in my first five years with MPS when observations and evaluations are mandatory, for a total of about half an hour. Not per year or per observation, but total. I have not been formally observed once, ever, by any of the last three principals I have served under, nor by any of their assistants, who can technically be deployed to do such work. I am supposed to be formally evaluated every three years; the last evaluation I signed was from the 2004-2005 school year. A colleague of mine at a school I will not name, up for evaluation this year, was not observed, and was told, in fact, "Well, I know how you teach." That colleague didn't see or sign an evaluation form this year, either.

In short, if ever you want to get teachers to concede that principals deserve input on who should stay or go in their buildings outside of the seniority structure, you need to make sure that principals are qualified to do that. Erin Richards's story a couple of weeks about about the layoffs featured the principal of Bradley Tech. I know him, having worked with him back when he was a teacher, and I am certain that if he approaches his principal duties with the commitment and quality he had as a teacher, then he is likely to be making very good decisions and judgments about the teachers in his building. But I cannot say that for every principal in the district that I know or have worked for, including some who were seen as rising stars and that the district now wishes they were rid of.

Further, there is no easy or good or objective way to know if, for example, a teacher that would have been let go from Tech is any better or worse than a teacher who might be staying at some other school. If Tech is working on a particular curriculum or challenge that one teacher may not like or be suited for, despite her ability, should that teacher be sitting at the unemployment office, pink slip in hand, because some other principal at some other school isn't as conscientious about holding teachers accountable or weeding out poor performers? (Because yes, there are steps to take to get rid of bad teachers and no, they're not that hard for principals to do, but no, principals don't take them as often as they should.)

Finally, in MPS as many as half its new-hires leave the district within five years. A first- or second-year teacher may be great, effective, dedicated to his students. But the data suggest that he may well be gone soon whether we lay him off or not; in fact, it's often the best teachers who get a few years under their belt--or have a child they'd rather raise in the suburbs--and take off for greener pastures outside the city schools. It seems kind of dumb to me to punish those who have taken the harder path, sticking with the challenging assignment and the residency requirement and the lower pay, in favor of an unknown quantity who may have one eye on the door.

Granted, a lot of this is generalizations (except, of course, for the specific cases). Every great veteran teacher was a young teacher once who would have been laid off if there had been layoffs at that time, so clearly not all young teachers will leave us anyway. And not every veteran teacher is great (no one seems to want to try to quantify just how many of us lazy, good-for-nothing, clock-punching pension-padders there are)--though I have never known a teacher who actively hates the job and the kids to stick around long enough to become a veteran.

I am long since on the record for being willing to change pay structures and even tenure rules. But Borsuk's commentary today--remember that? that's where we started 1500 words ago--is not an argument to do so, or even a particularly well reasoned attack on seniority. If you want to make the case for changing the system, you need something more than three weak bullet points.


Two related points that just didn't fit in above: One, it is a lie to say the private sector doesn't work on seniority. When my brother and my wife lost their jobs in this recession, both were the least-senior in their non-union. private-sector jobs. And two, it is ironic that the same people who bitterly carp about the failure of government in some way or another when the private sector lays off or outsources jobs are the ones crowing that layoffs have hit the schools. If, say, Bucyrus-Erie laid off 1,000 employees this month, you'd better believe that Sykes and Walker and Belling and the conservative blogs would be howling about the failure of the city or the state to save these jobs. I have two words for those people, the second of which is you.

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