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Thompson: Ending Seniority Transfers Won't Fix Teacher Quality Gaps

8hoursday_banner_1856When I started teaching in a high-challenge school in the 1990s, I was stunned by the quality of the teachers - they were far better instructors than I had known in the 1960s suburbs. Many had begun their careers when our school was an elite, all-white institution, and endured the violence of desegregation in the 1970s and the crack and gangs of the 1980s.

After suburban flight reduced my district's graduation rate to 39%, magnet schools were created. They slowed the loss of families from the district. Most of the elite teachers finally broke down and transferred to schools where chronic disorder did not undermine teaching and learning.

In theory, the system could have addressed the real problem - the mayhem created when children from generational poverty act out the effects of trauma.

Just kidding! The money it would have cost to address the legacies of extreme poverty was beyond anyone's dreams. Systems had no choice but to continue to play the blame game, and seek cheap and easy fixes and claim that better instruction could provide the answer.

Stephen Sawchuk's Are Teacher Contracts to Blame for Teacher-Quality Gaps? reviews the latest iteration of seeking silver bullets to cure society's ills.  It gives little solace to reformers who believe that ending teachers' transfer rights would address complicated education equity issues.  

Sawchuk cites the work of North Carolina's Lora Cohen-Vogel, which raises questions about whether minimizing seniority would have the desired effect. Cohen-Vogel concludes, "We found no suggestion that eliminating seniority rules is going to be effective in helping us meet the objective of getting teachers to teach in struggling school contexts."

Sawchuk recalls the research of Stanford's William Koski which concludes that "there was no overall pattern linking contract language to the distribution of teachers with nearly two years' experience across high- and low-minority schools in those districts." He also cites the re-analysis of of Koski's work by Terry Moe and Sarah Anziat which uses a diferent methodology and finds that in some cases seniority can undermine equity.

In contrast to Moe, Cohen-Vogel and Koski seem to be objective researchers. I can't deny my subjectivity, but I believe that the teachers' perspectives should also be considered.

I've long fretted over ways of improving high-poverty schools and wrestled with the question of what risks should teachers accept in order to better serve children. While I'm willing to compromise on some teachers' rights, I'm perplexed by the idea that restricting the seniority rights of teachers to transfer would make sense.  

Every time our best teachers attended conferences, they would be recruited to selective and/or low-poverty schools. Each year, it would become harder for many of our faculty to decline the offers and, eventually, most would agree to transfer. In every case that I recall, these decisions were excruciating. Most would suffer headaches, bouts of crying, and sleepless nights before they could leave their much harder job in a neighborhood school for one where it was so much easier to teach.

I was good at pacing myself, giving as much as I could to my students, but conserving my emotional resources until collapsing in complete exhaustion on the last day of school. 

After a time, however, inner city teachers  have been to too many funerals, too many hospital rooms, and worried over too many unconscious students. My last two years, I started getting sick at my stomach when covered with students' blood. (Twice, I had the weird reaction of being surprised that my face and forearms were completely covered, but only one drop landed on my shirt ...) 

Unlike great colleagues who stayed too long and permanently damaged their health (or even died), I retired early. But, as much as I love teaching, perhaps I should have transferred to a nationally-ranked magnet school.

Honestly, I probably couldn't do that. I was committed to the inner city. But, if we want teachers to commit fully to the job, it makes no sense to take away their transfer option when they have given it all.-JT(@drjohnthompson) Image via.  

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