Seniority-only policy should go

/ 27 February 2012 / jennifer

Star Tribune Editorial, February 27, 2012 –

Gov. Dayton should help end ‘last in, first out’ for teachers.

Both the Minnesota House and Senate have now passed teacher tenure law revisions that would scrap the state’s “last in, first out” rule. Under the legislation, the seniority-only provision that applies when school districts lay off staff would be replaced with a system based on a combination of seniority, licensure and performance.

Using seniority as one of several factors — but not the only factor — in determining layoffs would serve the best interests of students and the teaching profession. Gov. Mark Dayton should approve this bill when it reaches his desk.

Studies show that effective teaching is one of the most important in-school variables that affect student learning. School-district managers need the flexibility to retain their most effective instructors when they have to reduce staff.

Teachers also have interest in assuring that their coworkers are successful in the classroom. As students move from grade to grade, teachers are better positioned to get a year’s worth of learning accomplished if the colleague who preceded them did a good job the year before.

Minnesota, unfortunately, hasn’t done a particularly good job in making effective teaching a focus of policy. Last year, the National Council on Teacher Quality gave the state a flunking grade on dismissing bad teachers, in part because of the seniority-only law. And the state lost out on the first round of federal Race to the Top funds because of failing to address ineffective teaching, among other factors.

To be sure, experience matters. The proposal doesn’t throw out seniority altogether — rather, the changes are limited to the role tenure plays in layoffs. And even there, teachers with the same effectiveness rating will be laid off in reverse order of seniority. But the plan rightly recognizes that the number of years on the job is not the only or best way to judge who should remain there.

Teacher union opponents of the change say it would encourage districts to lay off older, more highly paid teachers to save money. And there is concern that without state seniority protection, layoff decisions would be left to the whims of administrators who might not be very effective themselves.

Poor management decisions are possible in any workplace, of course; federal and state employment laws provide options for those who believe they’ve been treated unfairly. What’s more, the Senate bill addresses that concern. It prohibits school districts from taking teacher salary into account during layoff decisions.

During his recent State of the State address, Dayton said he wanted to develop education initiatives this year “in cooperation with teachers, rather than in conflict with them.” He also said that the best education policies for students should not be a “political ploy” and that he would not support any measures of that kind.

But despite teacher union opposition, the wide range of public support for this legislation should persuade the governor that scrapping seniority-only is far more than a fight between political factions.

He should be encouraged by the fact that nearly 80 percent of Minnesotans agree that teacher effectiveness should be considered when making layoff and firing decisions, according to a recent survey by the Minnesota Campaign for Achievement Now (MinnCAN).

From the business and foundation communities to grass-roots parent and minority groups, keeping the best teachers in front of our kids seems like simple common sense to a diverse and concerned coalition of observers.

It includes President Obama, who in his State of the Union address stressed the need for flexibility to “replace teachers who aren’t helping kids learn.”

Last week, Dayton signed a bill that requires would-be teachers to pass a college-level test of basic skills. He should approve modifying tenure laws to help schools keep teachers who have proven in the classroom that they possess exceptional skills.


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