Thompson: How Seniority Reform Backfired In Minneapolis
I have long held the counter-intuitive opinion that mending, not ending, seniority could have been the most doable and beneficial first step in school improvement. I must emphasize that the direct benefits of reforming the imperfect but pretty good seniority system would have been modest. Had we worked collaboratively to make incremental gains in that process, however, we could have built the trust necessary to tackle tougher issues.
Instead, reformers made the uninformed snap judgment that “LIFO,” or the rule of “last in, first out,” must be ended. They didn’t even bother to ask why seniority serves as the teacher’s First Amendment. It is the best single protection that teachers will be able to express their professional judgments, thus protecting students from reckless educational experiments.
The Star Tribune’s Steve Brandt, in Poorest Minneapolis Schools Still Have the Greenest Teachers, explains how ending the “iron grip” of seniority backfired. (Hat tip to Sarah Lahm and Edushyster.) Brandt reports that a “Star Tribune analysis of teacher experience data by school found that, if anything, the experience gap between high- and low-poverty schools has widened” since so-called LIFO was ended. Six years ago, under the seniority system, the gap between average teaching experience at the highest- and lowest-seniority schools analyzed was 14 years, but it is now 15 years. The pattern is still, "poverty up, experience down."
Brandt describes inexperienced principals of high-poverty schools being stuck with even more inexperienced teachers. For instance, a second year principal finds herself with seventeen of her 31 of her teachers being probationary.
One reason, in Minneapolis, is that the end of seniority meant that top teachers in high-poverty schools found it easier to transfer more quickly to high-performing schools. I can’t speak for that city but I suspect, nation-wide, School Improvement Grants and other turnaround efforts accelerated the exodus of top teachers from the toughest schools. And, that brings us back to the sad story of opportunities lost due to reformers unwillingness to listen to veteran educators.
The end of LIFO made it easier to prevent constructive criticism of the SIG and other test-driven turnarounds. Schools seeking teach-to-the-test answers to low performance needed to merely label teachers who balked at nonstop test prep as “culture killers” and ship them out. This meant that turnaround and transformation strategies were not submitted to evidence-based cross-examination. Veteran teachers were blamed for the schools' previous failures and replaced by newbies.
Had seniority remained in place, SIG and other transformational experiments would have more likely been subjected to the give and take that is necessary for planning and implementing school improvements efforts. Veteran educators could have honestly expressed their professional judgments during that planning process.
Had we taken the time for a serious discussion of the best ways of staffing high-challenge schools, we could have devised win win solutions. For instance, had LIFO been limited to those who earned a Satisfactory on their evaluations, equity would have been advanced. And, the trust built in such a process could have provided a stepping stone toward more rigorous evaluations. Above all, veteran teachers would not have lost their protection against retribution for the sin of speaking truth to administrative power.-JT(@drjohnthompson) Image via.