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Thompson: How Seniority Reform Backfired In Minneapolis

LayoffsI 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.



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The article seems to describe issues surrounding the role of seniority in teacher assignment policies (e.g. teacher A goes to school B, instead of school C).

Last In - First Out (LIFO) changes focused on preventing teacher lay-offs based strictly on years of service(seniority). Without LIFO changes districts couldn't keep young rising stars or newly hired teachers of color if they didn't measure up on the seniority scale.

Proposed LIFO changes still kept seniority, but allowed school districts to first look at licensure, then teacher performance, then seniority when deciding which teachers had to be released due to budget cuts, for example.

Two very important subjects, but different. Would love to hear ideas on how to improve teacher transfer - assignment policies!

How is the idea that "mending not ending" due process protection counterintuitive?

Why would it be intuitive or common sense at all to end due process?

1) There is zero positive correlation between states without due process and educational achievement. It is truly Orwellian when the most "common sense" reform is something that is not even correlated with the result we want!

2) There is a huge negative correlation between teachers job satisfaction/ respect for the profession and student achievement. Eliminating job benefits for teachers has a direct negative effect on student achievement and retention of good teachers.

So, we know through evidence, that there is zero benefit of removing tenure. We know from evidence that professional benefits improve the workforce. So tell me again how eliminating tenure is the intuitive approach?

Jim, I am curious if you read the article? You are "concerned" that schools can't keep new teachers or minorities. The article clearly states that the opposite of your concern is the truth. There are too many, young, inexperienced teachers. Additionally, in every district where they have stripped rights it is the minority teachers that have been disproportionately affected. You see, it is usually urban districts that bear the brunt of these reforms, and these districts have a higher proportion of minority teachers. They are the ones being displaced.

Alec, the article talks about the experience gap between schools growing from 14 years to 15 years. This is a distribution issue, not an argument that there are too many younger teachers.

As Mpls. looks to hire more teachers of color in the next couple of years, or recruits some awesome new elementary teachers, what will happen to these teachers if the district is faced with a budget deficit and needs to lay-off teachers?

Under a strict seniority based lay-off policy, the district must let them go even if they're some of the best/most promising.

Alec is right. The weakening of seniority has reduced the number of teachers of color. Secondly, as I indicated, if LIFO had been limited to teachers who had receieved Satisfactory on their evals, your concerns would have been answered long ago. So, why didn't you all take "yes" for an answer.And, we could have built on that good will to use peer review or other valid evaluation systems to fairly fire bad teachers.

No, so-called "performance" shouldn't be placed above seniority. That is giving credence to a terribly flawed evaluation method. Besides, if you don't want to lose teaching talent in poor schools and lose talented young teachers, you should oppose us in fighting against the use of test scores in evals. Those models are biased against both teachers in poor schools and young teachers.

Regarding teacher transfers, the first thing you should do is reject magical thinking. Even if you got significant numbers of the top teachers in the top schools to transfer to poor schools, do you really think that will make a big difference? Of course, that ain't gonna happen. You should focus on the real problem, lousy schools and poverty, and stop the quest for simplistic quick fixes, such as the "teacher quality" silver bullet.


I would never reject due process. Tenure must be sacrasaint (sp?.) As you say, seniority is an essential job benefit.

Why is it counter-intuitive that we could have mended, not ended the job benefit of LIFO?

Just look at the above discussion. Reformers still can't hear us. Why, I don't know. I think fundamentally they bring a worldview to education that does not respect seniority. For some reason that I didn't anticipate, they never tried to walk a mile in teachers shoes and meet us halfway.

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