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Young Teachers Weigh In On Union Seniority Rules

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Young teachers are at the front of the layoff line when a school district has to cut back on staff, thanks to an Ohio law on the books since 1941. Earlier this month though, Governor Kasich signed legislation that says districts must base layoffs on performance not seniority. Now, newer teachers have a better chance of keeping their jobs, or put another way…more senior teachers won’t have the automatic protections they’ve had in the past. So how do relative newcomers to teaching feel about the change? Ideastream’s Michelle Kanu has some answers.

Thursday, April 28, 2011 at 1:23 pm

Bailey Quasey admits… job security wasn't the first thing on her mind when she started teaching in a rural town in Jefferson County—an area bordering West Virginia—three years ago.

Quasey: "I guess you always hear once you have tenure, you're safe, you're safe, you're safe. But me personally, that was nothing I was really concerned about."

Instead, Quasey says she was more focused on trying to manage her classrooms full of “special ed” kids of varying age, ability and maturity levels. When the district had to consolidate schools last year due to budget cuts, Quasey says she cringed each time she heard some of the older, veteran teachers say:

Quasey: " 'Oh, they can't get rid of me…I been here for 25 years. There's no reason for me to worry.' And as an educator and as someone who is very passionate about what I do, I just… was in shock."

For years, that smugness by some teachers was fed by the “last in, first out” rule that has frustrated principals, lawmakers, and foundations that have poured big bucks into improving education, because many believe it forces schools to lose talented new hires. Under the new law, known as Senate Bill 5, all teachers will be judged on their performance, not their years of service, when districts have to do layoffs.

Quasey says she welcomes this change. She thinks the law will push all teachers to get better at what they do, regardless of how long they've been on the job.

Quasey: "I think seniority needs to be let go. Teachers need to be held accountable for what they're doing in their classroom."

(background sound of coffee shop fades in)

Teodor Marti disagrees with changing how districts do layoffs. His eyebrows furrow and he shakes his head in frustration while drinking cranberry juice at Cleveland's Café Ah Roma.

Marti: "I don't think tenure's broken. I don't think seniority's broken."

Marti is in his third year of teaching ninth grade algebra in Lorain City Schools. Marti was actually RIFed—or served a “reduction in force” layoff notice-near the end of his second year, but was later called back. Marti says seniority is the fairest way to determine who gets laid off because experience counts.

Marti: "Really it's there to keep good teachers. That's the purpose. And we have other tools to address poor teacher performance."

Marti says teachers in his district are observed as many as four times a year, and even the veteran ones still get reviewed.

While frequent observation is happening at some schools, it’s not happening everywhere, and it’s a rare thing for an evaluation to lead to a teacher getting fired. Nationally, only two percent of teachers were dismissed in 2008, according to the US Department of Education’s Schools and Staffing Survey.

(ambience of Chris O'Brien teaching fades in)

Chris O'Brien taught for seven years in public schools in Lakewood and Brooklyn before he started teaching math at Entrepreneurship Preparatory School, a Cleveland charter school. He says in fact, some teachers say that seniority rules work because the current evaluation process isn’t set up to identify the best teachers or in any way compare one teacher to another.

O'Brien: "The evaluation process isn't geared toward that. It's geared toward individual growth, you highlight what you want to work on to get better at your teaching profession, but it’s not like teacher A is more effective than teacher B. Districts I don't think would even be able to make those kinds of evaluations."

But Senate Bill 5, in effect, will require districts to make those judgments and measure teacher quality based on several factors, including the level of license they hold, observations of their classroom instruction and heavy weight will be given to their students' academic performance.

Newer teachers like O'Brien say districts have a long way to go to fill in the details of those broad goals. Nonetheless, he still supports shaking up seniority rules.

O'Brien: "If the evaluation process was different, then seniority could go away, and you could base your decisions on objective, measurable things, then I think teachers would go for it."

Working on this story, I had trouble finding newcomer teachers willing to talk about this issue at all. Many said they fear being ostracized by their peers or the unions which have long considered seniority sacrosanct. And for those I contacted who are just finishing their teaching license, they said they can’t afford to jeopardize their chances of getting hired into a district.

O'Brien knows his support for Senate Bill 5 is unpopular among his colleagues, but he admits, he's in a better position to speak up since he works for a charter school that doesn’t contract with a union and is free to hire and fire teachers at will. Most young unionized teachers, he says, can't speak so freely.

O'Brien: "If you asked them in a quiet moment privately, what do you really feel, would you be opposed to this, they probably might say I think it has some merit or I like some parts of it, but would never-you'd never split the union in two. It would never divide in half."

Across Ohio school districts are facing cuts in state support and other budgetary pressures which are translating into thousands of layoff notices, including 643 teachers in Cleveland. The newest recruits will remain at the top of those layoff lists. Change is coming, but not until current union contracts expire.

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