Thursday, January 10, 2008

An unusual school contract

This one caught me by surprise. Over in the troubled Minneapolis school district, teachers have tentatively agreed to let principals pick their staff -- rather than forcing them to pick teachers by seniority.

A lot of rank-and-file teachers aren't particularly happy with the idea, but I hope it survives. Seniority is a wonderful way to reward long-serving workers, giving them very strong job security. But the downside is that you're picking teachers by longevity, not talent. The two aren't necessarily linked, and even great teachers can get burned out as they get older. In those cases, what's good for the teacher isn't what's good for the students or the school.

My oldest daughter has had two wonderful-but-young teachers. Both were uprooted because they lacked seniority. One had to change from kindergarten (her strength and love) to first grade. The other had to leave the district. My daughter now is taught by an older teacher -- who does okay, but is not inspired. Even in a meritocracy not every teacher can be a marvel, but it is always sad to see teachers you love forced to go elsewhere simply because they lacked seniority.

Teachers do have a legitimate concern that the new plan would make it easier to get rid of the most senior -- and thus most expensive -- teachers. That's why most unions have a seniority rule, to make layoffs generally not worth the employer's while. Most of the time, when a union shop needs to shrink, employers opt for buyouts instead.

But that shouldn't be a big problem if principals aren't responsible for a teacher's salary. If they aren't the one's paying, they shouldn't care if a given teacher is pricey or cheap. I don't know how school budgets work, but that might be a tweak worth considering: principals fill slots, and the district picks up the bill.

Other criticisms are less persuasive.

With this being year-to-year, this doesn't give students the consistency in their schools. They need structure, and I can see a revolving door in the schools, and this would discourage teachers from even wanting to the work for the district.

This one doesn't fly. First, consistency is not a virtue in and of itself; if a teacher is consistently bad, they should go. Second, since students change grades (and teachers) every year, how much consistency can there be? Third, this assumes principals would want a school with high turnover. I can't think of a reason why they would.

Kudos to the teachers for agreeing (even tentatively) to a system that puts the kids' needs first. If it survives, I hope the district exercises it in good faith. If they don't, it will destroy trust and -- most likely -- precipitate a serious confrontation at the next contract negotiations.

I'm curious what Centrisity's Flash -- a working teacher in St. Paul -- thinks about all this. Flash? Care to comment? Or do a post of your own? I'd love to hear a teacher's perspective.

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