Who gets what teaching job?

Aug 15, 2014 by

SALT LAKE CITY – There is a mountain of research strongly suggesting that K-12 students learn a great deal if they have good teachers, and miss out on a lot if they don’t.

Here’s just one example, offered by the Center for Public Education:

“Fifth-grade math students in Tennessee who had three consecutive highly-effective teachers scored between 52 and 53 percentile points ahead of students who had three consecutive teachers who were least effective, even though both groups had the same achievement rates prior to entering the second grade. A similar study in Texas showed a difference of 34 percentile points in reading and 49 percentile points in math.”

But who are the effective teachers? It completely depends on the individual. Effectiveness is not necessarily tied to educational background or years of experience, according to a study published by the Rand Education Corporation:

“Despite common perceptions, effective teachers cannot reliably be identified based on where they went to school, whether they’re licensed, or (after the first few years) how long they’ve taught. The best way to assess teachers’ effectiveness is to look at their on-the-job performance, including what they do in the classroom, and how much progress their students make on achievement tests.”

But teacher effectiveness has never been much of a concern for teacher unions across the nation. That’s seems to be the case in Utah, based on provisions in various collective bargaining agreements we have inspected.

Over the years Utah teacher unions have managed to negotiate various clauses giving teachers with seniority the right to avoid transfers, and the right to “bump” less senior teachers out of their positions, even if that means a better teacher (or one more suited to a certain assignment) has to go somewhere else.

Negotiated policies in several districts also give current teachers priority in filling open positions, even if outside candidates can be found who might do the job better.

A new Utah state law prohibits school districts from making layoff or termination decisions based on seniority alone, but it doesn’t address policies that give senior teachers first dibs at the more preferable jobs, or allow them to avoid unwanted transfers.

The Utah Office of Public Education (UOPE) recently announced a new program designed to maximize the chances of all students having access to high quality teachers, according to Linda Alder, the education effectiveness coordinator at UOPE.

School districts will have to submit plans to the state, showing how they propose to meet the above stated goal, Alder said. That might help get rid of some union contract provisions that still reward seniority over skill, but that depends on how the program is administered, and what sort of district compliance plans are considered acceptable by the state.

In the meantime, it’s clear that a lot of personnel moves are (or could be) made for the convenience and benefit of senior teachers, regardless of whether they are the best possible teachers.

Professionals concerned with student learning know that these dinosaur “adult first” policies are harmful for schools and kids. As the organization StudentsFirst wrote in a recent article:

“If staffing decisions were based on the needs of students, districts would obviously make every effort to keep the most effective teachers in place. Unfortunately, current laws and policies often force schools to make placements based on how long a teacher has been in the system.

“These policies take several forms, such as seniority transfers, which allow senior teachers to claim positions from other teachers regardless of their fitness for the position; excessing rules, which dictate that the least senior teacher will be displaced whenever a school reduces the number of teaching positions; and ‘Last In, First Out (LIFO) layoff rules,’ which require districts to terminate the most recent hires when layoffs are required.

“Put into practice, the combination of these rules often produces devastating results for students.”

This is happening in Utah, according to Michael Clara, who is a school board member in the Salt Lake City district.

“If (senior) teachers get displaced, they’re not firing them,” Clara told EAGnews. “Once they’re in they typically stay. That’s where seniority kicks in. They can bump other people. It doesn’t matter if they’re good teachers or bad, as long as they have seniority.”

Teacher quality not a factor

The following union contract provision governs the filling of vacancies in Utah’s Davis school district:

In filling vacancies, consideration shall be given to qualified teachers voluntarily requesting transfers … The principal shall interview at least two qualified district transfer candidates before filling a vacancy if contacted by transfer candidates before the position is filled … In evaluating transfer candidates, principals shall give extra consideration to those who have served 10 or more years at their present school.

Does this sound like there’s a bit of pressure on the principal to choose a transfer candidate, regardless of whether that teacher is more qualified, or a better fit, than an outside candidate might be?

Parents and taxpayers might reasonably expect the principal to interview all interested parties and choose the best possible teacher, but it just doesn’t work that way.

Here is another union contract provision from the Davis district:

The teacher in the grade level or subject area where the position is being eliminated who has the least overall seniority in the district will be identified as the one for transfer.

This policy is straight out of the union dark ages, when seniority was everything and competence played no role in school personnel decisions.

Then there’s this from the Davis teacher union contract:

When more than one teacher is identified for involuntary transfer at an elementary school in a given school year… (and) if more than one (of those teachers) chooses to take the place of (or bump) another educator with less district seniority, the principal shall meet with all those designated for involuntary transfer and identify to them an equal number of teachers at that school with the least overall seniority in the district.

In consultation with the teachers designated for involuntary transfer, the principal shall determine which lower seniority teacher shall be replaced by each teacher identified for involuntary transfer. A teacher thus replacing another educator with less district seniority shall assume the same grade level assignment as the individual he/she is assigned to replace. The teachers who are replaced under the terms of this provision shall then be designated for involuntary transfer from the school.

Could this policy be more illogical? If they are going to let teachers whose positions are being eliminated replace other teachers with less seniority, shouldn’t they make sure that the senior teachers are more effective than those they are bumping, particularly at the grade level they’re bumping into?

Yet we find no wording in this policy even remotely addressing teacher competence. The unspoken suggestion is that all teachers are equally effective, which everyone knows is absurd.

Several collective bargaining agreements in other Utah districts have the same type of rules.

One provision in the Carbon school district contract says:

Voluntary transfers will be honored prior to opening positions to outside applicants.

Again, a district is shutting the door to new talent, without finding out who might be available and what they might offer the district.

Kenneth Grover, director of secondary education at Salt Lake City schools, said the union bumping process can prevent schools from getting a healthy mixture of new teachers on staff.

“The needs of a (school) building can get a little politicized,” Grover said. “A teacher with seniority might say ‘I can go back to school to get that certification’ (for an open position or bumping opportunity), but that might be the least effective teacher in the building. Because of things like that, schools tend to not be able to get new blood in.”

Grover has also seen a fair number of promising young teachers laid off over the years due to union seniority rights.

“Every year this happens,” he said. “We only hire teachers on ‘one-year’ contracts for their first three years, due to this dynamic. We consistently lose great young teachers.”

Current teachers ‘shall have priority’

The Logan City collective bargaining agreement has an involuntary transfer policy that starts by incorporating the right idea (teacher quality), but quickly devolves into the same old nonsense.

It says that when an involuntary transfer is necessary, the principal shall determine who gets transferred by various criteria, including quality of teaching, certification, experience and seniority. The principal may also seek a volunteer to take the place of the person to be transferred.


If there are no volunteers or if there are concerns with the above considerations, the teacher in the grade level or subject area where the position is being eliminated who has the least overall seniority in the district will be identified as the one for transfer.

How difficult would it be for the union to raise “concerns” about the “quality of teaching” criteria, thereby triggering the tired old seniority clause? Why don’t they just come out and say it – the real policy is “last in, first out,” period.

The Salt Lake City district’s union contract has several provisions favoring existing teachers over potential newcomers, such as the following:

All teachers currently in a school, who hold the necessary qualifications, including part-time teachers, teachers on year to year contracts who have been recommended for rehire, and those on leave of absence, shall have priority to any internal vacancies in the school before any external vacancy is declared.

Another provision, aimed squarely at the hiring process, puts a lot of pressure on principals to fill vacancies from inside.

If fewer than three qualified career teachers (already on staff) have applied, the principal may request additional outside recruitment and consider applicants from outside the district along with any career teachers … In the event none of the internal applicants meets the prerequisites for the position, the principal shall justify to the Human Resources administrator, the reasons why none of the internal applicants could be selected.

Sounds like the principal had better hire an internal candidate, qualified or not, or heads are going to roll.

And finally there’s this beauty from the Salt Lake City contract, regarding “unassigned” teachers.

On occasion teachers become “unassigned,” which means they are still on the payroll but without a permanent daily position. Sometimes that occurs because they don’t fit in well at the school where they were assigned, but have done nothing to justify termination.

Even within the realm of “unassigned” teachers, the old problem of seniority pops up again.

The contract provision says:

(Administrators) shall be prepared to justify any decision which leaves a ‘less senior’ teacher in a school and a ‘more senior’ teacher unassigned.

In other words, the much easier route is to make sure the more senior teacher is assigned, whether he or she is the most fit for the opening or not.

Tomorrow: Teacher union contracts force several Utah school districts to give ineffective teachers far too many chances

Part 1: Even a conservative state like Utah is not immune to teacher unions and their negative impact on schools

Part 2: Utah teacher union contracts that drain precious education dollars stem from ‘culture of entitlement’

Part 3: Automatic step raises, generous paid leave policies drive up costs and hurt academics in Utah schools

Who gets what teaching job? In several Utah school districts, it’s still about seniority, not skill – EAGnews.org powered by Education Action Group Foundation, Inc..

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