Rethinking seniority, tenure

Principals in Providence will be able to hire teachers based on their qualifications, instead of letting senior teachers “bump” those with less time on the job.

Education Commissioner Peter McWalters, who ordered the change, says he has the power to intervene in a chronically under-performing school district.  He wants to build a common school culture by giving principals the “authority to select teachers who not only agree with the school’s mission but are best suited to the needs of those particular students.”

The teachers’ union hasn’t decided whether to fight the order.

Several states are considering delaying tenure for teachers, reports Teacher Beat.

In Ohio, Democratic Gov. Ted Strickland wants to grant teachers tenure after nine years, rather than the current three. . . . It would also allow tenured teachers to be dismissed for “just cause.” Currently, teachers can only be dismissed for “gross immorality” or “inefficiency.”

. . . In Florida, Republican legislators are preparing to submit legislation to give teachers annual contracts for their first 10 years in the classroom and then contracts of no more than five years after that. Essentially, that plan would make teachers at-will employees for their first 10 years.

. . . And, of course, there’s D.C. Chancellor Michelle Rhee’s proposal to push tenure-granting back from two to four years and require current teachers to forgo it for a year in exchange for the opportunity to win bonuses.

No Child Left Behind should provide incentives to keep competent teachers and dump the non-performers, reasons Teacher Beat. But is that really happening?

Teacher Beat also reports on a New Teacher Project study of how teachers are hired and evaluated in San Francisco: From 2005-2007, only five of 1,804 teachers were rated “unsatisfactory,” while  86 percent received one of the top two ratings.

About Joanne


  1. The teachers’ union hasn’t decided whether to fight the order? They’re probably stunned by the fact that someone so naive could get so high up in the education hierarchy.

  2. tim-10-ber says:

    Way to go Commissioner — welcome to the real world and the real way of making sure you have the best people in each position!!!

    Allen — surely you jest, right?

  3. Haven’t similar initiatives turned into opportunities to dump expensive, experienced teachers and hire new cheap teachers regardless of who better qualified?

  4. Well, yeah.

    Probably what’s going on is behind-the-scenes pressure is being applied to the commissioner to recant. If the unions can’t get him to admit the error of his ways they’ll go public with some denunciation or other. A lot depends on the political atmosphere in the state.

    Dawn wrote:

    > Haven’t similar initiatives turned into opportunities to dump expensive, experienced teachers and hire new cheap teachers regardless of who better qualified?

    What would make more sense? Teaching effectiveness doesn’t improve beyond five years experience so it makes perfect sense to dump over-paid teachers who are no more effective then lesser-paid teachers.

  5. The data from SF helps put the debate over tenure in perspective. I’m watching what Michelle Rhee is doing as that seems like a more interesting systematic approach.

  6. Robert Wright says:

    I’m looking forward to somebody studying the issue and writing about it one of these days. It’s a complicated issue.

    I have some thoughts and feelings about it. I’m sorry if this creates more noise than sheds light. But here goes:

    1. If teachers give up tenure the job will be less attractive and you’ll have to pay pay them more.

    2. Some of the best teachers I know would have been dismissed without the protection of tenure by small minded, risk averse, plain stupid principals.

    3. There are a few teachers I know who are downright mediocre and they got tenure because the administration was too lazy to evaluate them carefully in the first three years. Also, the administration didn’t want to take on the work of having to replace them. Though there are a few of these, there aren’t many. It might be worth it keep them on in order to retain the excellent teachers. There are many more excellent teachers than mediocre ones. We might want to be careful when disposing of the bath water.

    4. Students don’t flunk out of Stanford. The freshman class becomes the graduating class. Why? Admissions. If you visit the admissions office there, you won’t hear somebody say, “Oh no! We have a vaccancy! What are we going to do? Classes start in just three days! Quick! Let’s see if can find a warm body!” The majority of teacher hirings happen at the last minute and there’s more concern with starting classes with a regular teacher than an exceptionally good teacher. So, if more care was given to the hiring process, there wouldn’t be so many mediocre teachers who find their way into the system.

    5. In my experience I’ve seen districts get rid of quite a few teachers who had tenure. The idea that tenure is iron clad protection is a myth. Perhaps in states like Ohio it’s difficult to fire a teacher, but in California, all you have to do is get up at a board meeting and publicly disagree with the superintendent. Of course, they won’t call you in the next day and say, “You’re fired,” but if they want to, they’ll harass you for a year or two, you’ll grieve it, it will go to arbitration, you’ll get a cash settlement, and you’re out. In California tenured teachers can be fired for “just cause” and what constitutes just cause is elastic. What’s “unprofessional conduct?” Perhaps disagreeing with the superintendent.

    6. A tenured teacher can be fired overnight. It happened at my school. How could this be? Doesn’t it require a long process? No. All it requires is for three out of five board members to vote for the ouster which they’ll do in closed session. Then, after you’re fired, you can sue, if your CTA likes you enough and wants to spend the money. But you remain fired until your lawsuit gets you reinstated, which never happens. These things always end in cash settlements.

    7. I have mixed feelings about tenure. Half the principals I’ve had would have fired me. Half would have given me merit pay. But I think a gradual move away from tenure would be a good idea. As we move in the direction of school choice, with vouchers and charters, it might be appropriate to also leave behind the medieval concept of tenure.

  7. Andy Freeman says:

    > Haven’t similar initiatives turned into opportunities to dump expensive, experienced teachers and hire new cheap teachers regardless of who better qualified?

    It’s interesting that the words used to criticize the proposal are “experienced” and “qualified”, not “better teachers”.

    We’re not spending money on public education to employ teachers, no matter how “experienced” or “qualified”. We’re spending the money to educate students.

  8. 1. Since the jobs are protected by both specious certifications and unions I don’t see a loss of tenure having much of an impact on the market value of the jobs. The unions would, of course, demand wage increases to offset the loss of tenure but then the unions would demand wage increases as a matter of course.

    2. If the continued employment of principals were dependent on schools turning in good performances then the value of teachers would be pretty tough to overlook. As it is, who cares whether a teacher’s any good or not? It doesn’t matter if the school’s any good.

    3. Uh no, there aren’t many more excellent teachers then mediocre teachers. You’re free to make that claim but absent any evidence that’s just your opinion and it’s an opinion of dubious objectivity. Let’s just assume a bell curve until we’ve got evidence to the contrary.

    4. Since there’s no force driving teacher hiring standards towards greater selectivity, the selection criteria, or lack of, is purely dependent on luck, history and local politics.

    5. In your experience? Why is that important? The cold facts are that teachers are fired at a rate that would argue the hiring pool must sport halos and wings and be pretty good harp players. Since I don’t believe that’s likely true there must be a lot of teachers working who should’ve been fired. Since the extensive process that follows the “You’re fired” pronouncement is part of either the civil service system’s termination process or the union grievance procedure it seems to me that a substantial amount of rigmarole is necessary before “You’re fired” can reasonably be expected to be followed by “and don’t let the doorknob hit you in the a$$”.

    6. Oh, why don’t you give us a the number of teachers to whom this particular treatment is accorded, per year.

    7. I don’t. I think it’s a holdover, like summer vacation, from a bygone era.

  9. Robert Wright says:


    My statement that there are more excellent teachers than mediocre ones is just based on my unscientific sampling having taught for 35 years in one district and having a child go through 11 years in another district. Perhaps we’ve been very lucky. In my son’s district, excellent to mediocre is at lest 8 to 2. Maybe 9 to 1.

    Teachers are more often forced out than fired and not only is it easy to do, but sometimes administrators will do it for sport. I speak from my experience because I don’t have the cold hard facts that you mention.

    The myth is that a district needs a lot of evidence of misconduct over a long period of time yet on many occasions I’ve seen a teacher fired in 24 hours on totally trumped up charges. On other occasions I’ve seen the administration target a teacher to make their life a living hell forcing the teacher to resign. Another myth is that the union is there to protect teachers. Not so. The union is there to collect union dues.

    How many teachers are fired or forced out per year? Anywhere between 3 and 10 per year in a district of a couple hundred. How many are justified? That is, due to real misconduct rather than internal politics? Probably less than half.

    Firing a teacher might be expensive–sometimes it costs the district three years of the teacher’s salary–but it can be done and is done in 24 hours.

    I really wish the myth of tenure for California teachers would be busted. Also the myth that CTA is your corner, ready to back you up whenever you need it.

    I would love to have the kind of tenure that people think I have.

    All it gives me is the right not to be fired without “just cause.”

    But “just cause” is anything an administrator says it says and administrators lie.

    I know a teacher who was written up over 30 times and each one was nothing more than a lie. He was even written up on a day when he was absent. That’s how sloppy they were.

    Administrators know that the length and volume of a paper trail usually is far more important than what any of the papers say.

    A teacher I know who was under the gun was written up for being overheard saying, “Hey you guys!” That was improper language. Instead of guys he should have used the word students. That’s ridiculous but it’s documentation. Another time there was chalk dust found in his chalk tray. More documentation. The pins on his bulletin board were not all sticking out in the same direction and one picture was crooked. More documentation.

    Let’s say a teacher is lucky and gets an arbitration judge that won’t just count the pieces of paper but actually reads them. And if the firing is reversed, the district can ignore the ruling in which case the teacher has to sue in superior court. And if the teacher wins in superior court? Then the district can write a letter to Sacramento and have the teacher’s credential pulled–pending further investigation, which can take a long, long time.

    In truth, it’s easy to fire a tenured teacher. What’s hard is for a teacher to get reinstated even when fired on trumped up charges.

  10. Logic Issues:

    1. If teacher quality falls along a bell curve, then the distribution of good teachers is the same as for doctors, lawyers, computer programmers, etc. So what’s the big deal? Nobody wants the doctor who falls on the right side of the curve, but they’re out there just the same.

    2. Yes, teachers level out after 5 years, but that means for the first 5 they’re not fully on top of their game. If you are continually hiring fresh teachers and firing them after 5 years when they get expensive, then you always having a teaching cadre of substandard teachers.

    Factual Issues:

    1. Robert Wright is absolutely correct. It isn’t difficult to fire a tenured teacher. I see it all the time (although, I am quite thankful that every instance has been for good cause and I don’t work for creeps).

    2. My district grants tenure after 5 years, which is a bit more reasonable timeframe, I think, than 3.

    3. I know the data says effectiveness levels off after 5 years, but I think I’m more effective now than I was at that point. I keep careful data for my own use, and I’m seeing better achievement (reading scores) and fewer discipline issues (despite getting more difficult children — 7 with autism this year) than I saw 5 years ago.

  11. “It’s interesting that the words used to criticize the proposal are “experienced” and “qualified”, not “better teachers”.”

    Andy – I wasn’t really criticizing the proposal. I was actually asking the question in my comment. I’m not that familiar with this specific issue and have only read a bit in articles and blogs. What I’ve read has left me with the impression apparent in my comment – that this kind of initiative can leading to firing and hiring practices based on money, not on quality of teachers (in whatever sense you choose to use that word). Even if my impression DOES reflect what has happened with these kinds of initiative it’s doesn’t mean I don’t think it might not be an interesting one. Just that the possible trouble spots or concerns should be fleshed out before hand.

    There should be some kind of “devoid of sarcasm,” or “sincere question,” smiley.

  12. Hiring teachers based on their qualifications? Just like a real profession, eh?

  13. Richard Nieporent says:

    My statement that there are more excellent teachers than mediocre ones is just based on my unscientific sampling having taught for 35 years in one district and having a child go through 11 years in another district. Perhaps we’ve been very lucky. In my son’s district, excellent to mediocre is at lest 8 to 2. Maybe 9 to 1.

    Robert, I didn’t know that you lived in Lake Wobegon.

  14. Robert Wright says:

    Richard, I have a feeling it’s just something like 6 to 4 there.

    Either the talk about mediocre teachers is overblown or San Jose has a lot of great teachers.

    I think it’s mostly the former.

    Lightly Seasoned, I think 5 years for tenure makes a lot more sense. And I don’t think that would significantly discourage new teachers.

    Too many less than great teachers wait out those first three years while no one is looking.

    I was one of them.

    But I think by my 5th year I would have improved.

  15. How easy is it to fire school administrators who let the school’s teachers be interrupted while teaching once every ten minutes on average?
    How many politicians get fired for voting for a curriculum that covers everything under the sun without considering if an ordinary class could cover it in a year?
    How many school system administors get fired for buying classroom textbooks that have factual mistakes in them?

    I think this focus on teachers only is a waste of time.

  16. Andy Freeman says:

    > Andy – I wasn’t really criticizing the proposal. I was actually asking the question in my comment.

    My comment about the terms “experienced” and “qualified” doesn’t turn on whether you were criticizing or “just asking”. It turns on the criteria that you found important, whether as a basis for a question or as the foundation of a criticism.

    Of course, I am assuming that asking about something means that it’s more important to you than something that you didn’t ask about.

  17. Andy Freeman says:

    > I think this focus on teachers only is a waste of time.

    Who says that we’re only focussing on teachers?

    When I suggest that we shut down failing schools or districts, I’m not exempting administrators.

    I am trying to take money away from failing legislators.

  18. In Ireland, there are only two ways we can get rid of bad teachers:

    a) Shoot them

    b) They shoot themselves


  19. I wish your honesty in admitting that your assumptions about the lack of objectivity in your view of the distribution of teaching quality were matched by a similar degree of humility concerning the accuracy of those views. The fact is, absent some objective measure of teaching skill the only safe assumption is of a statistical distribution of skill levels.

    My own view is diametrically opposed to yours. I think that the incentives and disincentives of the public education system works to discourage the good teachers from continuing in the profession.

    As far as firing a teacher, this is a topic that’s been discussed at length and the notion that teachers, especially tenured teachers, can be fired quickly or easily is simply nonsense and I’d be happy if you’d post the source of your information to the contrary.

    To Lightly Seasoned:

    Logical Issues:

    1) Teacher quality falling along a bell curve is the only worthwhile assumption absent any facts to the contrary. Robert’s contention was that that teaching skill is skewed in favor of high competence based on nothing more then, apparently, his preferences. I hold the opposite view; that the public education system provides little incentive for excellent teacher to stay in the profession and thus selects for mediocre, or worse, practitioners.

    2) If teaching skill levels out after five years then so does the value of that teacher. Seniority is simply the unions way of rationalizing higher pay for people whose skills mustn’t be, and aren’t, measured.

    Factual Issues:

    1) With all due respect to yours and Robert’s views, I’d prefer something more substantive. My reading on the subject suggests a rather different conclusion – that teachers, especially tenured teachers – are terminated at a vanishingly small rate. Much lower rates then other professionals, even other civil service professionals.

    2) I can’t dispute that tenure’s an attractive idea for teachers but as a policy I think it’s counterproductive. Raise the bar for the termination of unfit employees and you’ll have more unfit employees.

    3) I’m glad you feel good about yourself but outside an ed school that sort of data set wouldn’t get you much respect and properly so.

    Tracy W wrote:

    > I think this focus on teachers only is a waste of time.

    You mean focusing on the difficulty of terminating lousy teachers? No, that’s not so much a waste of time as it’s putting the focus on a symptom, not the disease. As such, any attempt to improve the quality of the teaching profession is doomed to failure which won’t keep plenty of people from making the attempt.

  20. allen, I’m afraid I can’t post information about my district’s personnel issues, but I’ve seen tenured teachers walked out the door with no notice.

    I’m not doing any ed school studies (am done with all that), but in my limited view, I do see (some) teachers improving beyond that magical 5-year mark. All actively engage in professional development in which they’re heavily interested (not necessarily what the district provides). All are self-motivated — there’s really no outside pressure to do so (or reward).

    I agree that there is no good data set here because my skills are never measured. I still say I’m a better deal than a 4th year teacher, even for the marginal pay increase (remember, not all of us work in California).

    Other than intrinsic factors, I’m not sure what makes the profession attractive other than tenure and maybe the pension (if there’s anything left after the current fiasco). What do you think would attract bright, energetic people to work with apathetic 15-year-olds all day?

  21. Teachers ARE hired based upon their qualifications. I’ve sat on a lot of hiring committees. We look at education, experience, why they’re leaving their current district (we only hire teachers with graduate degrees in their subject area/speciality and 3+ years experience), watch them teach our students as part of the interviewing process, etc. It is not unusual for us to get 30 or 40 applicants for a job opening. Yet it is still tough to know who will be the outstanding teacher and who the merely OK.

    Personally, I think the difference between the great teacher and the good teacher is work ethic. The great teachers bust their butts all the time to do their best. But you can’t measure that during the hiring process. Some who start out talented never get any better because they’re happy with that… and so stay at the level of a talented novice. Some start out making all kinds of mistakes, but after 5 years are fantastic because they learned from every single bad day and improved (and keep on improving).

  22. Maybe in California it’s easy toget rid of tenured teachers, but not in New York State. The example comes to mind of the teacher in NYC who the district tried to fire after he was convicted of pushing cocaine. He challenged the firing. The legal challenges continued for two years, during which time the teacher continued to receive his pay, even though he was sitting in a prison cell the whole time.

    The state legislature was shamed into taking action, so now under a similar set of circumstnaces, it only takes 1 year to fire a tenured teacher. Meanwhile, the teacher continues to get paid.

    Roughly speaking, it takes at least a year to document a teacher properly, which includes training on how to improve, and only continued failure to improve will eventually result in a 3020a action (the state ed law which regulates how to fire a tenured teacher).

    It’s even harder to fire a tenured administrator, so usually what happens is you try to convince the administrator that they would be happier in a different district, or you move them around into different jobs and hope you finally hit on one which fits them and the district both.

    As for how many teachers are on the bottom end, it’s the traditional 10%. That is to say, get rid of the bottom 10% in any district and the teaching quality goes way up. (In military circles, the bottom 10% take up 90% of your time. The same thing appears to happen in any bureaucracy.)

  23. Robert Wright says:

    Rex, yes, I understand it’s much more difficult in New York than California.

    This is how the fire principals in my district. They give them a job at the district office, then after a year, they eliminate that job.

    Or they reassign them to the classroom which is so humiliating, they resign.

    Allen, I too would like to see good data on how often tenured teachers are fired. I don’t have that data in front of me. And it probably varies a lot from state to state. And good data would also show how teachers are fired indirectly. Lightly Seasoned and I can tell you from direct observation that tenured teachers are dismissed on the spot without much problem. Sometimes collecting the data on such things isn’t that easy. For example, with guns confiscated at schools, districts have all kinds of ways of hiding that data. No district wants to appear unsafe, so the fact that an incident involved a gun isn’t indexed. One year we had three students bring guns to school and there doesn’t exist a written record that it ever happened. I’m supposing the same kind thing is happening with the record keeping and reporting involving teacher dismissal. I look forward to seeing some good data on teacher dismissal and I wonder if it will conform to what we’ve seen with our own eyes. And remember, many dismissals are categorized as voluntary resignation/retirement.

    There was one teacher at a local school who was suddenly notified that instead of teaching 2nd grade, she’d have to teach 6th grade. It made her angry because the principal made the switch without consulting her first and probably did it just to harass her. Upon hearing this decision, she mumbled, “I’d like to kill that son of a bitch.” Another teacher overheard the comment and reported it to the principal who immediately called the police. She was led away in handcuffs in front of her students.

    She was so humiliated by the whole incident that she turned in her resignation.

    Sometimes teachers are harassed into resigning and it’s not listed as a firing.

    Another teacher I know resigned after the principal came into her room repeatedly and screamed at her that she had too much clutter. The principal called her a rat pack and a pig and said her house was probably a mess too. The teacher just couldn’t take the constant verbal attacks so she resigned.

    Several times I’ve seen when a teacher has been dismissed, the settlement allows him to officially resign.

    So, my point is, there are probably more firings than data would indicate.

    To go through the official process for firing a teacher for incompetence takes about five years of evaluation and intervention. So that’s why it’s never done. To fire a teacher on trumped up charges or to harass a teacher into voluntary resignation is quick and is done all the time.

  24. Folks, none of this makes any difference unless teaching (and adminsistration) becomes a profession. And, teaching won’t become a profession because it cannot. The field has no foundational knowledge on which the field is based. Each education school is as different as night and day (except for the extreme mediocrity from school to school). The field has no minimum standard(s)for entry. The fact that unions are permitted and even welcomed by the workers (teachers) is simply another indication that a profession does not exist. Sad, but true.

  25. Andy Freeman – I’m the one who said that the focus was on teachers. The reason I said that was because the articles linked only discussed teachers’ contracts. You may be trying to shift the terms of the debate, like I am, but I don’t think that either of us are having that much of an impact – yet.

  26. Lightly Seasoned (?), there are, I’m sure, districts which hire on the basis of skill, determining skill via various indirect means but as a factor in hiring decisions across the breadth of the public education system, how could skill be an important factor?

    There are no generally agreed-upon factors which are used as proxies for skill, there are no widely-used, widely-collected metrics used to determine skill. Even ed schools don’t have much of an impact as a proxy for skill since graduating from an excellent ed school, if that isn’t a contradiction in terms, isn’t much of a competitive advantage when it comes to tipping the hiring decision. Without objective measures it isn’t even possible to determine whether the local hiring standards are a useless set of hoops for prospective hires to jump through or actually determine which candidate is likely to be the best choice.

    > All are self-motivated — there’s really no outside pressure to do so (or reward).

    Indeed. It’s a point that bears examination.

    Disregarding the high-flown, and in no small measure self-serving, rhetoric about preparing tomorrows leaders teaching is still a job. A set of tasks that someone views as sufficiently important to enter into a agreement to pay to have them done. Obviously some people are going to better perform that task then others and it’s to the benefit of the party paying to have the task done to find the best practitioners.

    But that’s *not* what happens in the public education system.

    Yes there are exceptions but that’s what they necessarily are there being, as I wrote above, no widely-recognized means of determining teaching skill.

    Pride – self-motivation – becomes the primary force impelling individual teachers to excel and let’s be honest, not everyone is equally motivated. Some few will disregard the fact that they’re not professionally rewarded for being especially skillful and simply soldier on. Most will achieve some level of performance that doesn’t cause their conscience to gnaw at them and some will do as little as possible to scrape by. That being the case, and I categorically reject the notion that all teachers are equally skillful and equally motivated, shouldn’t skill be differentially rewarded?

    Robert, I’m sure there are lots of anecdotes about unfair treatment of teachers but just as in a court of law, in the court of public opinion the use of hearsay evidence is most likely to result in a poor decision. The unvarnished fact is that firing a teacher is an expensive, time-consuming process regardless of the exceptions of which you are aware. That’s disproportionately beneficial to lousy teachers but the basic problem is that no one associated with public education – teachers, administrators, school board members or ed school profs – have any direct, measured responsibility to excel professionally in a way which results in measurable improvements in education.

  27. Lightly Seasoned says:

    allen, if your premise is that teaching skill can’t be measured, then how do you determine whether it exists in order to reward it? Again, I’m missing the logic of your argument.

  28. Although there are few objective ways of measuring a teacher’s performance (although there are at least a few), the way those of us without tenure are measured is **subjectively.** That’s what managers are for.

    We all have stories of lousy prinicpals, so the issue then becomes which is worse? To have principals be able to recommend instant firing to Central Office, or to put up with the lousy teachers that are in the ranks now, protected by tenure?

    I know for a fact that in my friend’s district, allowing the superintendent to fire anyone at all, from administrators to teachers, for no reason at all, would immensely improve the district, and it’s a pretty good district to begin with.

    But in other districts, I’m not so sure.

    My favorite tenure story” I’m reading the paper, which has an article talking about teacher tenure. One of the teachers says, “It’s very hard working for three years knowing that any day you could be fired for no reason.” That hit my funny bone, and I said to myself, “Dude, that’s how the rest of us live our whole lives!”

  29. Andy Freeman says:

    > Andy Freeman – I’m the one who said that the focus was on teachers. The reason I said that was because the articles linked only discussed teachers’ contracts.

    And I’m pointed out that you’re wrong, with examples.

    Public school advocates believe that they win if they make the discussion about teachers.

  30. Andy Freeman – my apologies. I wrote badly and didn’t convey what I meant to say. When I said “I think this focus on teachers only is a waste of time”, would you have been able to agree with it if I had said “I think this focus on teachers only, as shown in the linked news articles is a waste of time?”
    I did not mean to imply that no one on the face of the planet had ever discussed holding only teachers responsible; I am quite aware that other people have criticised school administrations. The point I was trying to make was one about the mainstream level of discourse as reported by journalists. You haven’t provided any examples to change my mind about the focus of the mainstream debate.

  31. Roger Sweeny says:


    Perhaps I am in an unusual situation. I teach in Massachusetts, where the population is fairly stable and there are almost as many teachers’ colleges as there are Dunkin’ Donuts. Just about any open teaching position gets lots of applicants. Principals and department heads know that if a new hire doesn’t work out, there are plenty more where (s)he came from. They know that after three years, they have “bought” the teacher and they don’t want to have buyer’s remorse.

    Even if the initial distribution is bell-shaped, the left tail gets thinned fairly quickly. The ratio of good to mediocre teachers can be pretty high.

    Seniority means too much in education but yearly seniority raises have at least one positive effect. They make for a very stable work force. People are loath to leave because they might have to start at the bottom somewhere else. Because the workforce is stable, each year is pretty predictable. “Management” doesn’t have much uncertainty to manage. The ratio of administrators to classroom teachers can be remarkably low.

  32. “People are loath to leave because they might have to start at the bottom somewhere else.”

    Which means people tolerate poor administrators or other bad situations even in good economic times. While a seniority system is not the cause bad management, it does remove one effective weapon employees have; the ability to go work somewhere else for better pay and/or working conditions.

    A concern is that this system causes some who would be on the right side of the bell to choose not to be a part of the initial distribution or to leave teaching early in their careers.

  33. There’s been a lot of talk about the Bell Curve, most of which is wrong (if I remember correctly).

    As I remember, the Bell Curve deals with distributions for an average population. Teachers, by virtue of the fact they have college degrees, do not represent an average of the population.

    If we’re talking about teachers with seniority, say 5 years or more, they are even less average, as they represent those left after a 50% attrition rate for the first 5 years.

  34. Roger, you’re assuming a uniform, or at least wide-spread, winnowing out of lousy teachers before tenure kicks in. That requires a common motivation among those doing the winnowing and that motivation doesn’t exist. After three years what you’re assured of is that the new hire isn’t all that likely to be a problem, i.e. molest kids, turn out to be a pyromaniac, etc., not that they’ll be a good teacher.

    The teachers don’t have a sword of Damocles hanging over their heads, ready to drop if they’re lousy at their job but what’s worse is that the administrators, the people who make the hiring decision, don’t have a similar sword hanging over their heads, ready to drop, if the teachers they hire do a lousy job. The latter begets the former and as long as administrators don’t lose their jobs for hiring lousy teachers they’ll continue to do so, lousy teachers will continue to find employment and ed schools won’t be on the hook to make sure they don’t graduate lousy teachers.

    And what you find worthwhile about seniority I find pernicious. Tenure’s no substitute for placing real value on expertise.

    One cliched complaint by supporters of the current system is the high salaries of professional athletes. Yet those salaries are strictly a function of competence and to the extent seniority plays any role it’s only in the acquisition of valuable – measurably valuable – skills. Contrast that situation to the teaching profession in which competence isn’t measured and plays no role in compensation. A professional athlete can measure, literally to the penny, how valuable they are but a teacher had better be pretty confident of their skills because they’ll get no other clue about them.

    A calendar measures the passage of time, not the accretion of skills.

  35. I’m sure you won’t be surprised that I disagree Allen. A 50% attrition rate is a brutal loss rate, and those that survive are usually the ones with the skills to do the job well. Notice how many experienced teachers on here always say they don’t know or have not seen many mediocre teachers. They’ve been weeded out.

  36. Tenure has always been a slippery slope for public schools. I work in a parochial school where everyone has a one year contract. The school has a diverse student population but is rated as one of the top schools academically in the state. The point is that top teachers continue to perform and expect students to perform perhaps because there is no tenure. And it should be noted that the majority of our faculty have 20+ years of experience. Not having tenure is not a worry here because teachers actually do their job and students are expected to do theirs.

  37. There are strong logical issues with Allen’s logical issues.

    (1) It is logical to assume that teacher performance falls on some sort of bell curve. It probably doesn’t, but without data that is the standard assumption. However a bell curve simply describes the distribution of teaching ability about the mean. It does not tell you WHAT THAT MEAN IS. It is entirely possible that teachers of average skill are still quite competent instructors. Excellent teachers are on the leading tail and poor teachers would the trailing tail.

    (2) 5 years is almost certainly the knee of the performance curve not some sort of magical point when their skills stop improving completely. Based on a merit approach, the teacher’s salary growth should also slow. Which is fine and how most civil service payrolls are laid out anyway. I’m an engineer and I know that’s how my pay has been structured.

    “Another myth is that the union is there to protect teachers. Not so. The union is there to collect union dues.”

    Granted but if they aren’t doing their jobs then what do you pay their salaries for? You ought to have the right within the union structure to elect your own union representatives and officers. If they aren’t protecting your interests, then kick the bums out. Seriously, much of the conduct you’ve described would be grounds for legal action under fraud or harrassment laws. Get your union off it’s ass and defending your interests.

  38. Andy Freeman says:

    > There’s been a lot of talk about the Bell Curve, most of which is wrong (if I remember correctly).

    > As I remember, the Bell Curve deals with distributions for an average population. Teachers, by virtue of the fact they have college degrees, do not represent an average of the population.

    While teachers may not be “average” compared to some other population, that doesn’t mean that they don’t have distributions. All subpopulations have distributions, which may, or may not, be a bell curve for a given characteristic.

    For example, college grads have distributions, which fit a bell curve for many characteristics. There are also distributions for sub-groups of college grads.

  39. Andy Freeman says:

    BTW – Whether or not a given population has a given distribution wrt a given characteristic tells us nothing about the adequacy of said population wrt said characteristic.

  40. Roger Sweeny says:

    Cliff, you’re absolutely right. Seniority has bads as well as goods. Like so much in life, there are trade-offs.

  41. What you call a “brutal attrition rate” I call the results of the realization that the filet mignon you were expecting turned out to be a crap sandwich and the 50% who survived that “brutal attrition rate” are notable for their ability to hold their nose not for their ability to teach.

    They may or may not be good teachers but the ones who quit didn’t quit because they couldn’t teach. They quit because they realized no one in the organization that hired them really gave much of a damn if they could teach. Hence the bell curve. With no selection mechanism operating there’s nothing push the curve left or right.

    By the way, you’re free to describe the mechanism that selects for teaching skill since that’s what you’re implying is what determines which teacher is in which 50%.

  42. Allen,

    You’re free to point to some evidence that the 50% who carry on are imcompetents who can’t teach.

    Teachers here can point to their own experience, and that’s good enough for me. I don’t need some pseudo-reformer telling me how to do my job and the overwhelming majority of the teachers I know don’t need it either.