I would love to get the reaction of teachers to this Wall Street Journal article on the drawbacks of basing teacher layoffs on seniority, a practice that Michelle Rhee criticized during her recent whirlwind tour of Atlanta earlier this month.
I was puzzled by one of Rhee’s arguments against the “last-in-first-out” approach to teacher layoffs. She said the seniority system hurts high poverty schools as they typically have the newest teachers. So, those schools can see major staff turnover when layoffs are required and the newest teachers are marched out the front door.
But one of the standing criticisms of school systems is that they assign the least experienced teachers to the highest poverty schools. (It is a point often made by the Education Trust.)
In those policy debates, inexperienced teachers are cast as impediments to turning around failing schools, not a plus. I have attended many conferences where experts call for a concerted effort to staff the poorest schools with the most experienced teachers.
So which is it?
Are young teachers a boon for poverty schools and thus their departure represents a setback to the schools, as Rhee explained it. Or, are inexperienced teachers a liability for failing schools, as many policymakers insist?
How many new teachers are as talented and effective as the young Teach for America teacher featured in the Wall Street Journal article below?
My understanding of the research on effective teaching is that generally you don’t want a first-year teacher for your child. You want a teacher with at least three years in the classroom. (That has been borne out by my personal experience with my four children. First-year teachers face struggles with classroom management. But my children have never had a Teach for America teacher, who may arrive in the classroom with better management skills.)
This is Stany Leblanc’s second year as a New York City teacher. It may also be his last.
When Mr. Leblanc’s sixth-grade students arrived in September for their first day of school in the South Bronx, they were on average two years behind in writing skills and more than a year behind in reading.
To inspire his poor, black and Hispanic charges to read, Mr. Leblanc has found books that are relevant to many of their lives. Students whose homes are too chaotic for studying find in his classroom a quiet place to work long before school in the mornings and well after the school day is done. He pushes students to write essays every week and groups them into teams named after colleges, so they remember every day what they are working toward.
Five months later, his sixth-graders are reading and writing at the sixth-grade level. “I’ve already caught them up and now I’m moving them beyond,” he said.
More than 4,650 teachers are expected to be laid off at the end of this school year, according to Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s preliminary budget. State law requires that teachers hired last are the first ones to be laid off, regardless of their effectiveness. That would make Mr. Leblanc, who began teaching in 2009 and earns $45,000 a year, vulnerable to being among the first to go among a citywide teaching corps of nearly 80,000.
His school is vulnerable, too. More than 200 new schools have been created in New York City in recent years to replace large, dysfunctional schools where too many children were failing. These new schools tend to have teachers with less experience.
The location of Mr. Leblanc’s school in a poor neighborhood is a factor as well. Schools in poor districts tend to have newer teachers, as teachers with greater seniority tend not to want to work there. The Department of Education has said low-income communities will be among the hardest hit by teacher layoffs, places where children can least afford to lose their teachers.
“It’s going to be devastating to the culture” of the school, said Mr. Leblanc’s boss, Patrick Awosogba, the principal and founder of Science & Technology Academy: A Mott Hall School. Dr. Awosogba carefully picked each of his 25 teachers, building a team of educators who work well together and often pitch in at each other’s classrooms to offer help and advice.
Out of 25 teachers, 21 are new to the New York City system, having started at his school in 2009 or 2010. That puts them at risk of being laid off. His teachers are from Brown University, Harvard, Yale and West Point, among others. Many stay so late after school, either working with children or setting up lesson plans, that Dr. Awosogba frequently pops in to their rooms in the early evenings to say: “That’s enough for today. Go home.”
Dr. Awosogba calls himself pro-union. As a representative of the United Federation of Teachers for six years when he was a social studies teacher, he says he ardently believes that the teachers union can work with the administration to make things better. But he said he fears what a seniority-only layoff system will do to his school.
If Dr. Awosogba loses a significant number of teachers through layoffs, he will be allowed to hire other, more experienced teachers already teaching throughout the system or from the absent teacher reserve pool—a group of teachers who have not previously found permanent positions in schools. In some cases, teachers who have been laid off may be called back, also on a seniority basis.
The UFT has argued in recent weeks that the mayor is focused on the wrong issue. The UFT president, Michael Mulgrew, has said that with class sizes increasing and after teacher cutbacks through attrition in the past few years, there shouldn’t be any layoffs at all. But if there are, he has said, seniority is the only objective way to ensure that principals don’t unfairly pick off teachers they may dislike.
Mr. Leblanc, who graduated from Stanford University, came to the school last year through Teach for America, an organization that places young teachers in hard-to-staff urban schools. Last year, more than 46,000 college students applied to be TFA teachers nationally, and only 12% were accepted. There are about 250 Teach for America teachers in the New York City system teaching in their first and second years.
Mr. Leblanc stands out even further among those 12%. Recently, he became one of only 34 out of hundreds of TFA recruits to be nominated for a national teacher excellence award. Sarah King, a program director for Teach for America who acts as a coach to Mr. Leblanc and others said she is struck by Mr. Leblanc’s intensity. “He wastes not a single second of instructional time,” she said.
Mr. Leblanc’s gift, said his colleague Kaitlin Hanson, is his ability to connect with boys, particularly ones who are having behavioral issues.
Mr. Leblanc has become the go-to teacher for hard-to-reach cases, helping them learn to communicate better and working with them on apology letters for their outbursts, a process that Mr. Leblanc said can calm the children as well as allowing them an outlet to express their feelings.
–From Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog.