Democrats vs. Obama's ed plan

The House vote to cut funding for Race to the Top, the Teacher Incentive Fund and charter schools  is a direct attack on President Obama’s education reform agenda, which he considers one of his “proudest achievements,” writes Jonathan Alter in Newsweek.  The headline: How Congress Keeps Screwing Up Education.

Rep. David Obey, D-Wisconsin, is carrying water for the teachers’ union, which has rejected the reforms, Alter writes.

Last year, Congress funded $95 billion to prevent layoffs and only $5 billion for reforms. Now House Democrats want to take money already allocated to reform and transfer it to another effort to protect the status quo. In a Wednesday phone interview with Alter, Obey called Race to the Top a “slush fund,” the union’s phrase.

Obey said his edujobs amendment has little chance to pass in the Senate because it will get no Republican support. Edujobs would have a chance if the money for teachers was tied to reform of the seniority system, Alter writes. But Obama isn’t willing to make that fight.

Rigid “last hired, first fired” rules are a disaster for schoolchildren. They mean that across the country, teachers of the year will be pink-slipped simply because they are young. Yep—some of our very best teachers will be driven out of the profession. Meanwhile, older, incompetent teachers will be kept on. That’s unconscionable. We now know that having a bad teacher two or three years in a row in the early grades all but dooms disadvantaged children.

With a little imagination, there’s a grand compromise available: money to prevent layoffs in exchange for a requirement that seniority no longer be the only factor in determining layoffs (it could continue to be one of four or five factors).

. . . The stranglehold of the teachers’ unions on the Democratic Party, loosened a bit with Race to the Top, is back in place, asphyxiating the careers of the terrific young teachers who the country needs most.

Obey’s mini-coup shows why reform is so hard, writes Eric Hanushek on Ed Next.

In the provinces, seniority layoffs are under attack and some Democrats are leading the charge.

In California, a bill that modifies seniority layoffs passed an education committee on a 6-2 vote, despite strong opposition from the California Teachers Association.

“It’s about civil rights,” Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, a Sacramento Democrat,  said. Under the bill, lay-offs at low-performing schools couldn’t exceed the district average for layoffs. It’s a response to a civil-rights lawsuit charging that laying off less-experienced teachers disrupts low-performing, high-poverty and high-minority schools, which tend to have young teaching staffs.

Chicago has decided to lay off the lowest-performing teachers, regardless of seniority.

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  1. I have a real problem with the equation that young teacher=good whereas older, experienced teacher=bad. In almost every other profession, experience means something. Not only that, but in private industry, unionized or not, many companies often rely on last hired, first fired. I know this due to working in private industry for about 15 years.

    I also want to know in what other industry do you have two years in order to gain some job protections. Tenure simply means that a school district needs to give teachers due process and cannot fire people on a whim.

    Let’s get real. Older, more experienced teachers cost more money. This has nothing to do with making education better for kids, rather it is a way of getting rid of more expensive teachers because newer, younger teachers often make less AND often, do not have families in which medical benefits are needed.

  2. SuperSub says:

    ms_teacher –
    While administrators and politicians might see this as a way to save money, every school does have a story of a burnt-out teacher simply waiting to maximize their retirement or a promising young teacher who is let go because of budgetary constraints and their lack of seniority. Much of the support for an end to seniority-based layoffs is honest belief that it will benefit the students and not some scheme by greedy districts.

    An end of seniority could have other beneficial effects – it could end the perverse incentive for unions to focus the district’s payroll on the most senior teachers and spread it evenly to individuals who all perform the same duties.

    For every private company that fires or lays off by seniority, there are 10 more that take into account employee effectiveness and weigh the importance of that employee’s position.

  3. ms_teacher –

    I tend to agree with SuperSub. Some of the best teachers I had growing up were the younger ones, both closer in age to their charges and more enthusiastic about the learning process. To layoff on seniority is to lose that young energy.

    And to compare private industry with teaching for another moment:
    Many companies layoff on a seniority scale, but in the other direction – first hired, first fired. In the last 3 years, my husband’s company has fired their senior workers because their younger co-workers were willing to fill the gaps for far less cost. I understand this somewhat mimics your concerns about firing the most expensive teachers but in the world outside of public education, this happens to other professionals quite often.

    And there is no such thing, really, as tenure or “due process” in most private industry. Most places, other than union shops, offer “at will” employment. People can and do get fired all the time for stupid reasons or no reason at all. Teachers, after their 2 years, have quite a benefit to even have a “due process”.

  4. It doesn’t strike anyone as interesting that the Democratic party is splitting along the lines of the education issue?

    Seniority’s fearfully important but let’s not overlook a change to the power politics of a sea-to-shining-sea public institution.

    The fairly far left president is lining up on one side of the issue and legislators of his own party are lining up on the other side. How far will things go? How rancorous will the split become? Will the Republicans be able to make some use of the split? Where are the Republicans on the issue?

    Obey’s assumptions about his bill’s likelihood of surviving in the Senate are a clue but a more explicit statement on the subject would certainly be helpful.

  5. The Mayor of Newark, Cory Booker, a Democrat, is fully on board with Obama’s Race to the Top and also with the Republican governor’s expansion of charters. Recently, Republican Commissioner of Education Brent Schundler held a news conference announcing the expansion of charters surrounded by black ministers from inner city churches. The split is in the Democratic party between inner city African-American’s and entrenched union interests. It makes for very strange bedfellows, at least here in NJ.

  6. I get tired of people who automatically assume that older means inferior. Three years ago, when I was 50, our school started using value added scores. My students had the highest value added scores in reading. I wasn’t satisfied with that, so I spent my summer searching for ways to improve my skills in teaching the other subjects. The following year my students had the highest value added scores in every subject but math. I took that as a challenge and really focused on the research concerning the best ways to teach math. This year my students had the highest value added scores in all subjects. Most of the teachers in my school are younger than I am. I feel that my experience is a plus. My principal routinely gives me the students who have emotional/behavioral problems because my years in the classroom have given me an instinct for dealing with troubled students.

    Firing workers just because they are older is called age discrimination and it is both immoral and illegal. I look forward to a society in which discrimination against older workers is as unacceptable as discriminating against workers because of their race. Can you imagine anyone casually assuming that every school has a black or Hispanic teacher who deserves to be fired?

  7. I’m an second career (read “old”) new teacher, so you can imagine how I feel–I have the worst of both worlds!

    I support getting rid of seniority. However, the rhetoric around the effort is truly appalling, as is evidenced by the quote above:

    Yep—some of our very best teachers will be driven out of the profession. Meanwhile, older, incompetent teachers will be kept on.

    Best = young
    Incompetent = older

    It’s disgusting. There are plenty of teachers who have reached tenure before 30 and are simply awful, and tons of excellent teachers who are older. I agree that ending seniority will lead to age discrimination–in that the oldest teachers will be the most expensive. It may lead to older teachers agreeing to pay cuts WITHOUT the implication that they are incompetent. (“Look, Sally, you’re an awesome teacher, but I can get three new teachers for your price.”).

  8. Privatize education.

  9. SuperSub says:

    Cal and Ray –
    No one is claiming that older teachers need to be fired… just that seniority should not be the only factor considered for retainment, which is the standard now. Plain and simple, seniority-based layoffs were introduced by unions seeking to protect their membership and have little to do with ensuring effective education.

    “Meanwhile, older, incompetent teachers will be kept on. ”
    Does not mean that older teachers are incompetent… it means that teachers who are old and incompetent will be retained solely due to their seniority. Teachers who are old and competent (such as you Ray) would be kept on because of your abilities, not simply because you are closer to becoming a card-carrying member of the AARP.

    Seniority-based layoffs have the same weakness as affirmative action, Jim Crow laws, and any other form of prejudice… jobs end up being determined not by the actual capabilities and success of the individual but instead by factors that have little to do with their job. It puts less-qualified individuals in jobs and protects them from more qualified individuals who are of the disadvantaged class.

  10. The same teacher can be outstanding for years, or decades, but decline afterward. Some of my kids had a 7th or 8th-grade English teacher who actually taught grammer (including sentence diagramming!!) and composition. She was outstanding when my older kids had her (she was probably at least 60), but was less so (still better than most) when my younger kids arrived. The energy just wasn’t there and she did less and expected less. My oldest also had a 4th-grade teacher who was senile (and had to have been for several years before that) but the administration did nothing because she was within 3 years of her max retirement and firing her would have taken at least that long.

  11. CarolineSF says:

    Hurray for David Obey — perhaps he’s the leader public school supporters have been looking for. (And Jonathan Alter’s ongoing teacher-bashing is one of the vivid examples of the sad decline of Newsweek — I’ve been a subscriber my entire adult life, but we’ve now let our subscription lapse for good.)

  12. CarolineSF says:

    (Also, I normally make a rule of never correcting others’ grammar and spelling — mine isn’t always impeccable. However, I’m violating it to point out that first that dude who claims that all college graduates are incredibly stupid misspells the name of Kenyon College; and now Momof4, bemoaning teachers’ lapses, misspells “grammar.” Perhaps a little humility is in order for those who blast others for being less than perfect.)

  13. Supersub, if you’re going to be that dedicated to point out the obvious you’d best be sure people need you to do so.

    “Meanwhile, older, incompetent teachers will be kept on. ”
    Does not mean that older teachers are incompetent…

    Stretch your mind and consider how the sentence would have read if the speaker had just dropped “older”.

    It was a deliberate choice, using “older” in that sentence. Rhetorical, in fact. Go back and read the posts again and see where “rhetoric” showed up first.

    Then note that you agree with me on the main issue. I’m not entirely sure you understand what that means, though.

  14. I do know how to spell grammar but do make typos and am still really a paper-and-pencil person. I admit that I don’t spend a lot of time proofreading this kind of writing.

  15. SuperSub says:


    Simply dropping the term “older” would not have made the same point as Alter was trying to make. In fact, incompetent teachers are routinely let go… if they’re newer/younger teachers. Alter was making the point that incompetent teachers are lay-off-proof simply due to their seniority, hence why he added the descriptive term “older.”

    Back to your point about rhetoric, tenure has nothing to do with layoffs and seniority. We had two teachers, both with the district for over 8 years and tenured, who got laid off because they happened to be the least senior in their departments. The only factor that determined who was laid off was the time employed by the district, which with the exception of career-switchers correlates with age. In my opinion, one of the teachers who was let go was the best in his department, continually producing good results with his students and acting as a leader in his department. Meanwhile, the more-senior teacher who will be taking over his position has taught AIS math labs for the past five years and is known by both fellow teachers and administrators to do the bare minimum for her students.

    Alter’s use of the term “older” is not rhetoric… it is highlighting that the only factor that determines who is laid off is seniority… not skill, capabilities, or even experience in the specific position (since seniority is often department-based).

    The only possible problem that I see with the usage of “older” is that it is not absolutely correct since the system is based upon seniority and not age. Since seniority, though, is almost always correlated with age (except for career switchers as I noted already) and using the term “older” does not require a full explanation of how the seniority system works in education, I give him a pass as I understand the point he is trying to make.


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