Friday, March 2, 2012

San Francisco School Board Waives Seniority

The San Francisco School Board voted 5-1 this week to do away with seniority protections in order to save the jobs of 70 low-seniority teachers in 14 low-performing schools in the “Superintendent’s Zone.” They also voted 5-1 to issue 485 layoff notices, including 210 teacher and counselor layoffs, according to the San Francisco Chronicle.

An editorial in the Chron lamented that “low-performing schools won't improve if their most dedicated young teachers are the first to get pink slips.” This commonly believed and parroted delusion is based on the illogical premise that young and inexperienced teachers are somehow better than their more experienced peers. This is like arguing that an eager but inexperienced heart surgeon is better than an experienced veteran. In virtually all endeavors, experience improves one’s performance.

It also ignores the overwhelming causes of low achievement which are primarily socioeconomic in nature and have very little to do with their teachers. Even if we could staff low income schools entirely with the best teachers available and ensure that they were never laid off, low income students would still be coming to school sick, hungry, homeless, stressed and far behind their affluent peers in the requisite skills necessary for academic success.

Another argument that has been made in favor of protecting teachers at low income schools is that their schools tend to have the highest turnover rates and the largest numbers of layoffs during budget cuts. While this is true, it is important to look at the reasons for this tendency and find solutions that address the root causes, rather than slapping on ill-conceived bandages that do not really solve the problem.

SFUSD, like most urban districts, has high levels of low income students segregated in a portion of its schools. In San Francisco, the majority of these are located east of Twin Peaks in the Mission, Bay View-Hunters Point, Tenderloin, and OMI districts. And like most urban school districts, these low income schools tend to have the lowest test scores and highest dropout rates and the greatest pressure on teachers to work harder and longer to erase the achievement gap. Furthermore, the students at these schools tend to have greater emotional, intellectual and physical needs, placing further stress on the teachers. As a result, these schools tend to have higher attrition rates for teachers who burn out from all the extra demands or who transfer to less stressful teaching environments.

Consequently, the schools with the greatest need for quality teachers also tend to have the highest turnover of teachers, as well as a disproportionate number of young and inexperienced teachers who have low seniority. This is true even when budgets are healthy. However, during budget shortfalls, the lower income schools also generally lose more teachers to layoffs than their more affluent neighbors because they have higher percentages of novice teachers.

There is no question that this is unfair and a disservice to students. However, the solution is not to shred teachers’ contractual rights, nor to give younger teachers preferential treatment, as is being attempted in SFUSD (and as occurred in LAUSD this year). For one, there is no reason to believe that protecting those teachers’ jobs will solve the problem of high attrition at their schools. They will continue to face the same challenging students and be expected to raise test scores by impossible margins and implement a variety of new policies and curricula, without being provided the time or compensation to do it well.

Another reason why this strategy is wrongheaded is that it only protects teachers at 14 struggling schools, leaving open the possibility that teachers at other low performing, high turnover schools will still get the axe, including some highly effective veteran teachers. El Dorado, for example, which is not in the protected zone, will lose more than one-third of its teaching staff. The plan is ostensibly being done “in the name of social justice,” UESF President Dennis Kelly was quoted in the SF Chronicle. He went on to say, "You don't have justice for some," which is what will happen if the plan goes through. The union is considering filing a lawsuit to block the move.

One solution would be to reassign students more equitably, so that no schools are made up of mostly low income students. Unfortunately, the problem of Apartheid-like school systems segregated by social class seems to be intractable. It is one thing to offer lower income families the opportunity to bus their kids to a school far away from the gangs, drugs and poverty of their neighborhood, but quite another to tell affluent parents that their kids have been assigned to a ghetto school. Many of those with money will simply jump ship and invest in private school. Indeed, in San Francisco 29% of San Francisco kids were already in private schools in 2005, according to SF Magazine.

However, from the perspective of the teachers, a lot could be done to attract and retain the best and most experienced at challenging low performing schools, thus reducing the percentage of novice and low-seniority teachers. Perhaps the most important would be an abandonment of the accountability and testing mania that has been destroying public education for the past decade. This would take considerable pressure off of teachers to fix problems that are beyond their control and do wonders for the morale and climate at these schools. Simply “allowing teachers to teach,” combined with ample paid collaboration time and paid professional development, would also be strong incentives for retaining dedicated, high quality veteran teachers.

Teacher Seniority is a Labor Issue for All Working People
The final decision to deviate from seniority in the layoff procedure must be decided by an administrative law judge according to state law, which means the decision could stick, regardless of the unions’ position. Since seniority rights are collectively bargained between the union and SFUSD, such an outcome would be tantamount to the state ripping up the teachers’ contract. Keep in mind, teachers bargain with local districts, not the state. Allowing the state to trample on contractually agreed upon rights opens the floodgates for it to trample on other rights and protections.

It is also important to remember that seniority protections exist to prevent arbitrary and vindictive layoffs. Without seniority protections, higher paid veteran teachers can be laid off to save districts money. Teachers could also be fired for their union activities, being outspoken advocates for children or teachers, or for their extracurricular activities or lifestyles. Allowing the state to step in and override seniority could be used to balance continued budget cuts with a mass culling of the highest paid and most experienced teachers. It could also be used to weaken teachers unions by ridding districts of the most active and vocal union members.

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