Merit vs. Seniority

The debate over whether the city Department of Education should base teacher layoffs on seniority got hotter this week when a Quinnipiac Poll showed that 85 percent of the people who responded opposed the current policy of basing teacher layoffs on seniority. The respondents said they do not like the “last in, first out” policy. They want the best teachers retained.

Sounds good. Everyone wants the best teachers to be retained. With city schools facing a 7.3 percent cut in state aid, this may become a real issue and not just a theoretical problem in the near future.

But the devil is in the details.

For Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the answer is simple: “The public wants us to do the right thing for their children’s future. That means focusing on merit to ensure we keep the very best teachers in our schools.”

If the critics of the current system win and seniority is abandoned, who will decide which teachers are doing the best job? Will this be determined by principals or the DOE?

Will the decision be based on the results of standardized tests? Will the people making this decision take into account teachers working in run-down schools in bad neighborhoods? How will the department measure the work of teachers who have found ways to inspire classes if this does not show up immediately on standardized tests?

We assume principals know the teachers best, but if they become involved in the decision-making process, they might be tempted to let go those teachers with the most seniority because they make twice as much as a new teacher. At the same time, there are teachers in every school who do little more than kill time until they retire.

The recent poll is proof of the adage if you torture statistics enough they will confess to anything. What if the question had been: Do people who have dedicated decades to teaching children in the city’s public schools deserve job security?

We hope a system can be found that will allow the city to retain the best teachers regardless of seniority while respecting the contributions of those who served a large part of their lives in the public school system. Even more, we hope a way can be found to avoid teacher layoffs altogether.

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