Saturday, May 28, 2011

On Tenure, LIFO, and Paying for Years of Service

WARNING: Serious teacher post ahead.

There's been a lot of talk lately about reforming (or even getting rid of) tenure in the public school system. Critics say it makes it virtually impossible for districts to fire bad teachers. Another argument is that it grants teachers more job protection than anyone else in our economy. Less talked about are the related issues of LIFO* (last in, first out) and basing teachers' salaries on their years of service. In Michigan, and in many other places across the nation, all of these under attack.

I'm not going to trot out all the usual defenses of these practices. What I will do is offer a glimpse of what would happen if they disappeared.

What critics will say is that teachers should be treated like any other employee. They should be rewarded for good performance and penalized when they're ineffective. No one wants a great teacher laid off just because she's young. Teacher pay should be based on effectiveness, not seniority. These sound like reasonable arguments. But in actual practice, tenure, LIFO, and paying teachers based on years of service provide certainty to districts and consistency to communities.

Changing the current system will lead to unintended consequences. The legislature would essentially be turning every teacher in the state into free agents. Without the job protection tenure affords (granted after four years in Michigan), teachers just starting out their careers (unmarried, mobile, embracing change) could hop from district to district looking for the right fit. Without the incentive of future tenure and the yearly pay raises, there would be no reason to stay, especially for the best teachers.

If you tie teacher pay to effectiveness rather than seniority, there is nothing to keep a great teacher from leaving and looking for a better deal. Most veteran teachers I know don't even consider leaving after seven or eight years because of the hit their salaries would take when they changed districts. And which teachers would be most likely to take advantage of this new freedom? The very best ones. If you're a great teacher, why would you stay in your school if another school is willing to pay you more? And just where do you think our very best teachers would eventually end up? In the poorest districts, where they're needed most but the work would be harder and the pay less? Or in the districts who could pay them the most but probably need them the least?

Tenure, LIFO, and paying teachers based on seniority might be unpalatable, but no one can argue that it doesn't provide districts with a high degree of certainty from year to year. Right now, as districts figure out their budgets, one thing they do not have to worry about is losing half of their veteran teachers to better paying districts. And communities can count on which teachers are going to be there for their kids in the fall.

Personal Aside: I should say that as a male teacher in elementary education, these proposed changes don't terrify me. Quite the opposite. Believe me, I'd like a little more leverage. In the system described above, good teachers would be in very high demand (especially if the state actually started awarding schools for high performance) and the school system would more closely reflect the marketplace in that those teachers in the highest demand would command the highest salaries. There are very few men teaching in today's elementary schools (9 percent of teachers, actually). Given the high number of children being raised without a father at home, I think that might work to my advantage.

Another Criticism of the Criticism: Right now, schools have a much higher incentive to cut costs than they do to provide a great education. If that remains the case, it's hard to see how getting rid of tenure is going to ensure the best teachers remain in the classroom. My suspicion is that without the impediment of tenure, school districts will simply lay off the teachers who cost them the most, regardless of their effectiveness.

*"Last in, first out" is the practice school districts use for laying off teachers. Simply stated, those teachers who were hired most recently get laid off first when cuts to staff are made. Veteran teachers have virtually no fear of losing their job due to staffing cuts.


Craig said...

You bring up some great points, Murph, things I've never thought of. It's a system that is very difficult to fix. Everybody talks about merit pay, but how do you do it? The thing that will fix this whole mess is to get this economy going and create more revenue, and if/when that happens, continue to shrink the size of our state government and reduce our taxes.

Unknown said...

Yep. Which is why I'm not totally irate about the governor's budget (although I do think it's more about getting revenge on teachers unions than on solving a fiscal crisis). The truth is, it's a gamble. If the tax breaks lead to more jobs, than education will benefit. But if the economy doesn't get better, than Republicans will have hell to pay in the next election. Hope it works.

Mike Winchell said...

As a teacher for twelve years, I understand every point you make, and I agree. Thing is: this instability, or the threat of instability, is driving many would-be teachers away from teaching. There were changes made in New York State (where I live/teach) with regards to certification the year after I started teaching that got rid of permanent certification (I just got under the wire on that and I am permanently certified). This change forced new teachers to continually "re-up" their certification every few years by way of professional development stipulations that must be met.

In the end, it all comes down to one thing: the public doesn't trust teachers. This is why, as much as I love teaching, I advise younger people to look into another profession if they're thinking of teaching. Sounds bad, I know, but I have to be honest with them.

Unknown said...

Agree Michael. That's the crux of the matter. Although an interesting question is why. That's certainly not the case historically. I posit the following:

1. Media coverage tends to focus on the negative--teachers abusing kids, low test scores, etc. We hardly ever hear about the good things that happen in schools.

2. Low test scores from our students. This topic could take another six posts, but it's a reality about why the public doesn't trust us.

3. We belong to unions and there are fewer people who work for unions today.

4. We are "government workers" and there's almost no trust left in government.

Feel free to add more.

Mike Winchell said...

5. The public sees summers off & 180+ days of "work" and they feel we're overpaid, having no clue how much work goes into designing effective lessons/activities, grading, and correspondence (including weekends and summers).

6. That Boston Public television series from back in the day? I mean, a teacher whipped out a handgun and shot it off in the classroom and still kept his job.

Anita said...

I think you must be a great teacher and wish I could send my kids to you. About the trust thing: I think everyone has had a really "bad" teacher at some point...that's frustrating and makes people wary of teachers who could never be gotten rid of. Does that make sense?

Unknown said...

Teachers in every school should be evaluated by three people: two administrators and a colleague who's qualified to do it. And don't tell me there is not enough time. Half sheet of paper with check boxes, a couple lines of notes from evaluators, teacher discusses evaluation with superior, goes in teacher's records. This should happen every year with every teacher. It's a succinct evaluation process that works and holds teachers accountable on some level.

Good teachers should be rewarded. Bad teachers should be fired and told to look for another job.

Overall performance rating should not rely on test scores alone, but the teacher's overall effectiveness in the classroom. Evaluations can be done. But for some reason, no one wants to hold teachers accountable. If this were any other industry, an "ineffective" employee would be fired and told to hit the road and look for something else you're good at.

Maybe free agency isn't a bad move for teaching. Competition can be good and usually drives up performance.

What manager wants their clean-up hitter locked into the four hole for 25 years if he's not driving in runs every year? What principal wants a teacher who's not performing locked into a classroom for 25 years?

The well-known teachers in a community are well-known for two reasons. Either they're stellar teachers or lumps of crap.

Unknown said...

The education system should learn something from the car industry. Chrysler and the likes were paying workers a hundred grand a year to mop the floors or watch movies during shift. This is what you earned for giving so many years of hard labor on the assembly line.

The problem with that is obvious. There was a ton of money going to workers who produce nothing. And we all know what happened to the auto industry.

Public school systems are headed in the same direction. Tenure is going to lock systems into teachers who make a ton of money and produce no results. Then what happens?

The system (in this case we're talking about America's future workforce and leaders) folds.

Unknown said...

Fair points, Tracy. I would add that at the public school level I think the state should have a say in the evaluation. Not that I think people working for the state are necessarily qualified, but I've never understood how states are willing to pay people to inspect restaurants but they're not willing to do the same for schools and teachers.
I'd like to see states create positions for retired teachers who have been referred to them by colleagues and administrators because they were effective. I'd much rather be judged by an actual human being who spent her career in the classroom than an administrator who couldn't hack it or, even worse, a test score.

Unknown said...

Yes, Anita, that makes sense to a certain degree. Any time I hear people say so and so is a bad teacher I wonder about their criteria. There are obviously examples like the teacher who just sits at her desk and puts videos on all day, but there are other reasons people label a teacher bad that aren't fair. I know teachers who are unpopular because they take their jobs seriously and take no crap from parents and students. Are they "bad?" Conversely, I've known teachers who can't teach a lick but are incredibly supportive of their students and students and parents love them. Is that teacher "bad?" I've known teachers who have loud, active classrooms and are perceived poorly by principals because the principals are control freaks who love order and silence. It's not like selling insurance. A teacher might be a awful for one child but a perfect fit for another.

Unknown said...

You might consider, Tracy, that the blame for the current folding of the system can't be placed on the backs of uneducated Americans, but on those who benefited from the best our educational system has to offer. It was largely Ivy League graduates who took lucrative gigs at Bear Stearns and Goldman Sachs who drove the economy into the ground.

Just sayin'

Unknown said...

yes, good points. Teaching is an enigmatic profession that, in my opinion, depends almost entirely on the TEACHER. A good one can make mountains out of mole hills.

Anonymous said...

When teachers live in the at-will employment world they will be laid off soon after they cost more to employ than a newly educated teacher. Do not be fooled into believing that good performance will equate into long term employment. The bottom line is cost based. The goal is least cost. Better teachers may be employed longer then most, but the bottom line will catch up to them.

I am not a teacher, just one of many at-will employees that remain unemployed/underemployed/career changed from reduction in force events in 1985, 2003, 2010.

Best of luck to you.