March 14, 2011
By Alan J. Gerson

Seniority for teachers is good for pupils. The seniority system, along with teacher tenure, assure that all students benefit from experienced teachers who have remained independent of clubhouse and internal school system politics.

Seniority and tenure do not mean that incompetent teachers do not get fired. Supervisors in the New York City public school system regularly review and annually rate all teachers, and unsatisfactory ratings have serious consequences. This rating system can, of course, be improved and the process to remove those few teachers destructive or incompetent streamlined, with improved school system management. But, the seniority system, along with tenure, assure that teachers get fired for pedagogical failure and not for reasons of favoritism, politics, or a desire to save money by dismissing the longer serving more highly paid instructors. Anyone who doubts that without seniority and tenure, those factors would enter into hiring and firing in a dominant way, ignores reality and history. Preventing the worst of politics from hijacking our children’s education provides reason enough for perpetuating seniority and tenure.

 But, even if the angels ran the school system, they could not accurately calibrate teacher performance much beyond the current rating system. In the context of the teacher student dynamic, measuring success in the short term remains elusive, and the effort to do so with fine precision actually undermines the educational process.

I am a proud alumnus of the NYC public school system, from kindergarten through twelfth grade. In the course of my career, I must have been taught by over 180 teachers. They ran the gamut in personality and eccentricity. My education would have suffered if the faculty were reconstituted to a more homogeneous group, which passed muster under a cookie cutter rating system, or one which culled favoritism with the rater.

Looking back, some of the teachers who were more popular among students, parents or administrators, and adjudged to be the “better teachers” at the time, turned out to be less effective in the lessons they imparted than teachers less popular or deemed mediocre. In many cases, we did not fully appreciate the benefit from a teacher, and the lessons and training she or he imparted, until years later. Many a former pupil has had “oh yeah” moments, when we realized a particular teacher we may not have particularly liked or appreciated, prepared us well for life or business situations.

Teachers who inspired me turned off other students and visa versa. Sometimes coaches and teachers of the so called non academic subjects” had a more profound impact on some students that all other teachers combined  like the gym teacher who, according to one student, gave her “her life” by guiding and inspiring her to become a dance therapist. I remember the economics teacher, Mr. Irgang, who regularly received reprimands from supervisors because his methodology deviated from instructional dogma then in vogue, but who nevertheless motivated more students to pursue economics than any other teacher in the school.

Newer teachers often provided refreshing perspective, but by and large, the experienced teachers were better able to control classes, offered a greater depth to their subject areas, and more quickly identified individual student problems. Some of my teachers were, of course, more memorable or more influential on my intellectual development than others, but my overall education was fostered by the collective team effort and effect of the 180 plus teachers.

The seniority system, along with tenure, allows teachers the freedom within bounds to deviate and innovate, as well as to speak out freely on their discernment of student need. In one of my high school student “roasts” of the faculty, the principal was represented as a robot repeating, “I do everything the Board of Education says.” Seniority and tenure guard against such an entire faculty, allowing and fostering a diversity of personality and hermeneutical approach of the teaching team. This is of educational benefit to each student, and especially beneficial to a diverse student body.

Many of those who propound abolishing seniority argue in response that standardized student testing, by objectively measuring student achievement, allows for the rating and ranking of teachers. This is yet another fallacy too simple and easy to be true. Just a few years ago, the vogue was to de-emphasize, if not do away with, testing as a measure of student and teacher achievement. We are now moving from one unhelpful extreme to another.

Standardized tests provide the school system with an important diagnostic tool. Substandard test results by a student, a class, a school, or a school district ought to prompt an educational inquiry to find out what is going on and a strategy for improvement. A teacher or administrator who refuses to, or cannot, keep up with the strategy ought to be fired for insubordination or removed from the classroom for those “unsatisfactory” ratings. This, in fact, can and does happen with a properly administered seniority and tenure system in place. However, elevating standardized test results to the be all and end all substitute for seniority is not only unfair to teachers, but also detrimental to students.

Making standardized exams the ultimate arbiter of student and teacher performance ignores the various individualized factors students bring to their exams, which affect their scores. Even if the testing industry comes up with a program to adequately account for economic and linguistic differences, a very doubtful proposition, it would remain unfeasible to additionally account for the family, cultural, emotional, and medical factors. It would be like a doctor diagnosing and treating a patient strictly on the basis of blood test results without examining the whole person. 

The greatest problem with an excessive reliance on testing is not, however, just the incompleteness and inaccuracy of the measurement. Putting the paramount emphasis on the test will deflect a school system from looking for, identifying, evaluating, and then dealing with or correcting the individualized student issues. Instead, schools will place a greater emphasis on teaching for the test. Anyone who has ever utilized crypt notes, memory games, or any number of test taking strategies, knows full well the difference between learning a subject area and learning to pass or even ace a test between true intellectual development and the development of test taking skills. It is true learning and not test grades which remains indispensable to a student’s lifetime success and our nation’s economic and strategic strength.

Furthermore, an undue emphasis on test scores for determining a teacher’s career path will result in many teachers avoiding classes with students who face the greatest difficulties or hurdles to overcome to achieve high test scores. Undue emphasis on testing to measure either teacher or student achievement will also prompt many students and parents to take the “easy” path and avoid more difficult courses of study, for fear of failure. The additional testing and test emphases will impose greater stress on already stressed-out students.

But perhaps the greater importance of seniority and tenure is their role in fostering and maintaining the nurturing atmosphere of school, also known as school spirit or esprit de corps, long deemed important to educational success. It is not just that cutthroat competition and corporate style politics will become a far greater presence within a school’s faculty in the absence of seniority and tenure. All of us who have ever been present in an unruly class must remember the teacher who reprimands, “I can just sit here for as long as you misbehave and I will get paid, but you won’t learn!!!” The underlying message we got is that the teacher is teaching us for our educational benefit, not for her or his own advantage. In the absence of seniority and tenure, the class smart aleck will shout out “but you’ll be let go” or “you won’t get your merit raise if we don’t do well on the tests”.

The point being that, despite teachers best intentions, without seniority and tenure, students necessarily become pawns or modalities of their teachers career advancement. The bond of unconditional commitment from teacher to student could never be the same. This reflects a radical departure from the paradigm for the teacher student dynamic, which has not only been celebrated in our popular culture, but has in fact overwhelmingly well served generations of students and our country since the inception of public education.

Historically, public schools and their faculties were viewed as organically connected to their communities, as extensions of the family with teachers as temporary, substitute parents. It would be as unthinkable to reduce the complexities of being a good teacher simply to test scores, as it would the complexities of being a good parent. Underlying this view of schools and teachers is the notion that children develop and learn best, and are best prepared for the rough and tumble of the adult market place, in a more nurturing environment. 

Schools have always been competitive places, in academics and athletics and more. But this competition has historically taken place within the rubric of the spirit of school as an extended family. Replacing that rubric with corporate style competition and politics, the ultimate result of doing away with seniority, reflects an extension of radical marketplace ideology.

One, of course, can mount an argument in favor of the application to schools of the ideology that teachers will teach and children learn best when faced with market type incentives and disincentives, and that this overrides all negative side effects. But one must honestly admit that this is an ideological and not an empirical argument, for no evidence exists to support a linkage between abolishing seniority and improving learning. Bill Gates and others have argued that there is no proven linkage between seniority and student success, but that formulation of their argument not only obscures the lack of proof between their proposals and educational success, but also ignores years of real life educational experience. In comparing succeeding and failing schools and school districts over the years, the presence or absence of seniority has never been the distinguishing factor.

Mayor Bloomberg has led the ideological opposition to seniority and tenure. If the Mayor and the others in office who oppose seniority want to test their ideological opposition, let them do so with a real marketplace test. Establish side by side, in each district, two schools for all grade levels, with equal per student budgets and full parental choice:  one, a school free from centralized mandates, without seniority or tenure, and with teacher merit pay and school opening and closure all determined by standardized testing or the rating system of the school’s or Department’s choice the other, a traditionally structured school but with smaller class sizes, expanded guidance and health services, ongoing substantive teacher training with real teacher support, a strong core curriculum with normal testing and a strong disciplinary and anti-bullying regime. Money for this can be found, in part, by reducing the centralized bureaucracy. Of all the different school reforms, this remains the one that the Bloomberg and other anti seniority administrations around the country have yet to try out. Perhaps, it is because they fear that the results will undermine their ideology.

Alan J. Gerson served as the City Council Member representing District 1 from 2002 to 2009.


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