Choosing the kids over the adults

I’ve been wanting to blog about a recent court case from Chicago, but haven’t had a chance to do it yet. Tonight, I see that the Chicago Tribune editorial board beat me to it. The editorial accurately (at least in my mind) explains the issue of removing teachers (due to economic constraints), but rehiring teachers who can teach well vs. rehiring teachers who have seniority, but may not be strong teachers in the classroom.

And yes, I agree that we need strong and accountable principals as much as we need strong and accountable teachers, but when it comes down to the realities of current policy – teacher’s contracts are often much harder to break and change (and allow much more protection for the lowest performers) than any other profession within the education system.

Here’s the editorial:

In any school, no priority — such as employee tenure — should outweigh putting the most skilled teacher possible at the head of every classroom. You won’t find that sentence in an important decision the Illinois Supreme Court handed down Friday. But that’s the de facto impact of a big win for Chicago Public Schools at the expense of the Chicago Teachers Union.

The broad context here is that, in too many U.S. school districts, labor contracts perversely give more weight to the interests of adult educators than to the needs of young students: Seniority clauses protect inadequate teachers just as efficiently as they protect the very best.

The narrower context here goes to the summer of 2010 when CPS, facing a big budget deficit for the next school year, laid off 1,289 teachers. An increase in federal funding offset much of the deficit. In subsequently filling vacancies, though, CPS didn’t give tenured teachers preference; instead the district recalled 715 of the laid-off teachers — but also mixed in new hires of its choosing. The CTU went to federal court, essentially arguing that the district had improperly fired many of its tenured members. After a tortuous path, the dispute landed in the Illinois Supreme Court.

All along that path, the core question remained: Do tenured teachers who are laid off for economic reasons have a right to be rehired as their school district fills jobs? Put another way, can principals hire the best possible job candidates to instruct the children in their care — or does tenure trump teaching skill?

The court found that, across most of Illinois, tenured teachers do have a right of recall: In general, that is, if they’ve been evaluated as satisfactory or better, they have a right to be rehired into vacancies that arise.

In Chicago, though, the rules are different. We would say blessedly different: In its 1995 Chicago school reform legislation, the Illinois General Assembly gave CPS the power to promulgate its layoff and recall procedures. The Supreme Court majority found that the 1995 law “reflects a clear legislative intent to change the statutory rights of tenured teachers in a layoff.” Come 2010, then, CPS principals were free to hire the best teachers, tenured or no. That’s what many of them tried to do.

On Friday the CTU noted the Supreme Court’s finding that enabling principals to hire top-flight teachers doesn’t mean they will: Justice Charles Freeman, writing for the majority, said the Chicago-specific law doesn’t guarantee that, after any layoff, the most qualified or most experienced tenured teachers will be recalled.

To the CTU, “tenured” and “experienced” are synonyms for “most qualified.” Not necessarily. The issue is, or ought to be, which teaching candidate appears best able to help students — given their individual ability levels — make the greatest possible progress that each of them can. So while the union stressed that Friday’s decision “hurts tenured educators,” our view is that it’s a big victory for some 400,000 Chicago schoolchildren.

We’ve long argued that teaching tenure should be harder to get and easier to lose: If you want teachers to focus on their performance rather than on their seniority, end tenure altogether. In the year this dispute arose, Terry Mazany, the then-interim CEO of CPS, told the Tribune editorial board that, “The notion that anyone is granted lifetime employment in this day and age is an anachronism.” The point, we wrote then, isn’t that seniority is bad. It’s that without excellent performance, mere seniority shouldn’t guarantee anyone a job.

For the CTU, this ruling has to sting deeply: the state Supreme Court finds that state law gives CPS leeway — in these circumstances — to let teaching skill trump tenure. Don’t be surprised if the union attempts to introduce the issue during negotiations with CPS on a new labor contract to replace the one that expires this summer.

If so, we hope the CTU has the same success with that topic as it deserves with its request, reported in Friday’s Tribune, for raises amounting to 30 percent over the next two years. Don’t get us wrong, we’d like to see teachers eligible to be paid — much more — according to their performance. Not that the CTU has shown much interest in that heretical concept.

As pleased as we are by Friday’s ruling, we’re also as puzzled as ever by bizarre practices that are so common in the U.S. public education industry:

Why would any district, or any legislature, in any state, let a labor contract stop principals from hiring the best educators they can find? What is the mission of the American public school — insulating adults or teaching children?


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