2011-04-08 / Columnists

The Rockaway Beat

The Myths Surrounding The Seniority Rules
Commentary By Howard Schwach

Mayor Michael Bloomberg and his friends in the newspaper business have been blasting teachers for continuing to support the seniority rules that have been in place for decades.

In addition, Bloomberg has been pouring millions of his private fortune (pocket money to him) into a television and mail campaign that is designed to show that experienced teachers support their venal and incompetent colleagues by supporting the last in, first out seniority rules that were set by legislators 75 years ago.

That teachers support incompetent colleagues is a myth, one that was added by Bloomberg and his minions to the myriad of myths surrounding the seniority debate.

Some of those myths: Seniority is designed to keep bad teachers on the job.

The fact is that nobody wants to get rid of bad and ineffective teachers more than the teachers with whom they work. There is nothing worse for a teacher than having a class in front of him or her that just came from 42 minutes with an ineffective teacher. At times, when I was teaching, it took me 15 or 20 minutes of valuable teaching time just to quiet the class down and get them ready to work after coming from a teacher I knew was ineffective.

I have to admit that when I became the school programmer at IS 53, I would program the classes that I taught so that they did not come to me after lunch or after being with a teacher I knew to be weak on discipline. There are long-standing rules in place for getting rid of an ineffective teacher, but it is rightfully a lot of paperwork and supervision, and many supervisors were too lazy to do it the right way.

Even tenured teachers can be fired for cause, but few are, simply because it is too much work on the part of the school supervisors and the district. Unions negotiated the seniority rules.

Seniority protections are not negotiated between the city and the UFT or any other city union. They are statutory, set in law by the state legislature.

All civil servants were granted seniority protection in layoff rules enacted in 1909. They were extended to teachers in 1940. They were designed to ensure that layoff decisions were fair and objective, and not tainted by political affiliation, as they had been up to that point.

The state’s highest court has ruled that statutory seniority rules cannot be negotiated through collective bargaining. If you get rid of the seniority rules, layoffs will be based on merit.

If you believe that statement, I have a bridge from Rockaway to Brooklyn that you might want to buy cheap.

The deal is to break the UFT and to enable the DOE to rid itself of all those expensive experienced teachers who really know how to teach and hire much cheaper new teachers who are beholden to the DOE’s philosophy of lock-step learning.

In fact, history proves that, without seniority rules, firing and hiring decisions are made instead on the basis of cronyism, nepotism and several other isms.

Or, they may be based on sex, religious affiliation or political affiliation. Is that really what we want for our schools?

When the seniority rules were extended to teachers, it was in the wake of several scandals and designed to provide a modicum of academic freedom for teachers.

I have already told you my personal story about tenure and seniority, so I won’t go into it again.

Suffice it to say that, without that safeguard, I would have been fired by the District 27 school board for blowing the whistle on its illegal and immoral practices. Ending seniority will lead to better teachers and therefore, better schools.

Would you be happy being operated on by a surgeon who is doing his first surgery on you? Would you opt for an experienced pilot or a new pilot making his first hop? Would you go for a brand new attorney, or one who had tried thousands of cases?

As with everything, experience counts. If you believe the mayor and his well-heeled friends, however, you would come to understand that experience is bad and that freshness and eagerness are better.

Studies show that teachers, like most professionals, develop their skills and effectiveness over time, as they gain experience and become comfortable in what they are doing.

As a retired teacher with more than 30 years experience, I can tell you that few come into the profession fullblown, with the ability to immediately take over a class and teach the mandated material. For the great majority, it takes three to five years to really get into the groove.

If you look closely at the groups pushing for the “reform,” you will find that the money is coming from the money-men and women who are fairly foaming at the mouth at the thought of how much money is involved in charter schools and the entire “education industry.”

Show us the money, honey!

Ending seniority is all about breaking the union and taking over the lucrative education business to provide a large profit for those who are pushing the reform. It is not about kids, nor parents, nor education.

It is about money, cutting taxes and expenses.

Take a senior teacher at $90,000 per year and get rid of him or her.

Then, hire two or three teachers at $32,000 per, and you can immediately reduce class size without spending a penny more. The key, many administrators believe, is not competency, but more bang for your bucks.

Of course, the bottom line is that you are most likely cutting the education value of the student as well, as the new teacher in front of her/him struggles to learn her or his trade.

Changing the seniority rules is not good for students or schools.

It is only a positive for those who want to take over the public school system for their own profit.

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