One of the most persistent attacks on the teaching profession over the years has been around the issue of seniority. Lawmakers have been chipping away at seniority, believing it saddles schools with ineffective teachers and forces younger educators out of the profession. But experience matters. A lot. The more experienced an educator, the better able she is to address the needs of students because she’s dealt with just about every learning level, behavioral challenge, engagement strategy and classroom management style. She’s there to mentor the newer teachers and help them become the best educators they can be.
NEA Today recently spoke to Emma García, an economist at the Economic Policy Institute, who specializes in the economics of education and education policy, about why seniority makes sense for schools and students.
Why should teacher seniority be preserved when so many new, talented educators have entered the classroom with such great potential?
EG: This should not be seen as an “either or” situation. These are two generations who are naturally linked to each other and who work in tandem to achieve common purposes. Also, we should be careful with “letting teachers go” and rather improve retention and attraction of high-quality teachers (the estimates are that schools are lacking about 110 thousand teachers this academic year, and the forecasts are that shortages will persist).
The evidence from teachers themselves and from research says that experience on the job is a key credential of quality and effectiveness. New, talented and well-trained teachers are needed to replace who leave due to attrition and, sometimes, turnover.
The new and talented educators, whose teaching skills greatly improve during their first years in the profession, can better develop as educators when they are integrated into a stable group and benefit from mentoring and feedback from more senior teachers. Senior teachers not only know their profession very well, but have a well of context knowledge and can play a very important role in helping younger teachers build their careers.
The argument against seniority rests largely on this notion that preserving seniority costs more than making hiring and firing decisions based on merit. How is this off-the-mark?
EG: It depends on the strategy we prefer to adequately staff our schools. Remember, our schools are short of teachers, which is costly to students, other teachers, and the system, and that filling a vacancy in teaching—regardless of who is replaced or what motivated the need for the teacher—is costly as well. It also depends critically on what we understand we mean when we say “merit.” How is it measured and what does it mean for an educator? It is very difficult to disentangle teachers’ merit and contribution to students’ development from the families’, peers’, and schools’ contributions.
Rather than costs alone, we should think about “efficiency”, and about “having a stable and strong teacher labor force.” For example, because merit and seniority are correlated, it may be more efficient (i.e., more effective promoting students’ development relative to its costs) to keep the most senior teachers on board. If we care about the stability of a qualified teacher labor force, it may be better to find the right balance between retaining senior teachers and attracting great new teachers.
Ensuring our schools have strong and effective teachers can also be helped by better early training and mentoring practices, more opportunities for collaboration and professional development, as well as through better working conditions and broad supports for teachers and students; this last option is possibly the most efficient and most sustainable solution.
And then there’s the myth that it protects bad, lazy teachers who want to coast into retirement.
EG: Seniority, tenure and other protections were not put in place to allow for that to happen. If those “lazy”or “bad” professionals are in our system, we need to identify how that happened and fix it. We need great teachers in our schools, and there are many factors—in the schools and institutionally—that can help with that.
How does seniority protect curriculum?
EG: Curriculum, just like the majority of ingredients of teaching and learning, is informed in a key manner by teachers. Seniority also plays a role in that because more experienced teachers have developed the know-how about curriculum contents and about teaching practices in the classroom. Their knowledge about how to deliver it in heterogeneous classrooms and across different schools’ contexts is greatly important.
Well-trained novice teachers can also contribute to improving the curriculum, but their assessment may be more useful when they work with more senior teachers to identify what needs to be added to the curriculum and how to integrate that with the existing contents and instructional practices.
What other ways does it benefit our education system?
EG: Together with education and other skills, training and experience are core components of our human capital. In addition to being one of the credentials of quality and effectiveness, experience is also an indirect indicator that a teacher intends to stay in teaching (an indicator of selection).
I cannot think of any other profession—especially any labor intensive, involving personal interactions, profession such as teaching— where we would accept that the value of experience were put into question. We can discuss if teachers receive the necessary lifelong professional development or whether their students and schools receive the necessary supports, but not if experience is valuable.
What is behind the attack on seniority? What is the endgame of those who would abolish the practice in our schools?
EG: In theory, it is a strategy that pursues objectives besides what the prime goals of education are, that threatens public education and teachers, and that misguides policy. In practice, it’s a distraction from the necessary efforts to address the persistent nature of achievement gaps between advantaged and disadvantaged students, and an obstacle to build a solid reputation for teaching and to professionalize it.