Urban legends: out with the old, in with the new

Though they didn't make the Education Week list, surely two of the most influential studies of recent years were reports from The New Teacher Project about the impact of teachers' seniority placement rights in urban school districts.

The first, Missed Opportunities: How We Keep High-Quality Teachers Out of Urban Classrooms, showed that many qualified new teachers apply to teach in high-poverty urban schools but endless delays in the H.R. process eventually push them to the suburbs or out of teaching altogether. Such delays are caused in part by seniority transfer rights enshrined in collective bargaining agreements; veteran teachers have first dibs on open jobs, so districts can't offer those jobs to newbies until late summer.

The second report, Unintended Consequences: The Case for Reforming the Staffing Rules in Urban Teachers Union Contracts, looked closely at five urban districts and found that 40 percent of all vacancies were filled by teachers that principals were forced to accept.

Together, these studies paint a damning picture of the impact of seniority rights, which keep good rookie teachers out of high-need schools and force bad veteran teachers in. And they've spurred some changes at the state and district levels (see here).

That's the backdrop for this recent report from the AFT (and a related Education Week commentary) which seeks to dispel the "urban legend" about seniority rights. Tapping data from the federal Schools and Staffing Survey, it shows that urban, high-poverty schools operating under collective bargaining agreements lose fewer teachers due to transfers than similar schools operating without collective bargaining. In fact, they actually receive more teacher transfers than their non-union peers do. Plus, the report notes, high-poverty schools with collective bargaining were three times less likely to hire first-year teachers than similar schools without collective bargaining.

Be not deceived. This actually buttresses The New Teacher Project's central point: high-poverty urban schools are being staffed by experienced teachers while passing on rookies. That sounds good, until you realize that, according to The New Teacher Project research, the rookies seeking these positions were typically quite talented while many of the experienced teachers were lemons that nobody else wanted. The SASS data presented by the AFT don't tell us anything about teacher effectiveness, so The New Teacher Project's key finding stands. Nor do we know if the outbound teacher transfers so prevalent in non-union urban schools represent instances when good principals were getting rid of bad teachers. Sometimes teacher turnover is to be celebrated.

In other words, all the AFT showed is that high-poverty schools are hiring fewer new teachers than low-poverty schools while receiving more experienced teachers; the teachers they have stick around longer; and all of this is related to collective bargaining. But the "urban legend" that deserves scrutiny (and doesn't get it) is the AFT's belief that experienced teachers are necessarily better than new teachers. And what the AFT study certainly doesn't dispute is that principals are in the best position to determine which teachers--be they experienced or not--are the best teachers.

Which is why principals should be able to hire the best person for the job, collective bargaining agreements be damned.

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