Rethinking the seniority system

Annie Hatch, a first-year humanities teacher at Oakland’s Life Academy, offers her reflections about the last-in, first-out layoff system. Her pink slip has yet to be rescinded.

Annie Hatch, Life AcademyAs more and more layoffs are being rescinded, the fury that was driving a lot of healthy debate has seemed to subside. When the district initially announced that over 500 teachers in Oakland would be receiving pink slips, I heard a lot of people arguing that the district should rescind them all—that no teacher ever deserves a pink slip. But, the unavoidable reality is that some teachers will be laid off—this year, and in the future. And while this remains the case, we desperately need to rethink the seniority system.

Like a fine wine, I believe a good teacher gets better with age. There is a steep learning curve when it comes to the craft of teaching, and, I won’t lie, I am looking forward to not being a first-year teacher. Throughout the course of this first year, I have seen my classroom management skills improve exponentially. I can plan a lesson in half the time it took me in September. I am more efficient, more capable, more confident. I am better at prioritizing what matters, strategizing intervention, managing group work, and finding the essential question I’m hoping to teach through each lesson.

My more experienced colleagues are incredible and I feel so lucky to be able to draw on their professional expertise. I often consult them on issues I am having in the classroom and I am so thankful to be able to tap into their wisdom.

But to assume that ALL teachers improve with time is a dangerous fallacy. How will a bad teacher in a dysfunctional system that offers little in the way of encouragement or assistance ever improve? If this teacher is shuffled or bumped to a new placement after this initial challenging year, improving only gets harder. I would be willing to bet that in most districts, “bad” teachers, like bad wines, only get worse. The lack of support and constructive feedback they receive is taken as a sign of acceptance, and their bad habits become ingrained. Over time, if they stay in the profession, their lack of efficacy makes their teaching lazy, hopeless, or mean.

A couple years ago, I worked for a non-profit providing assistance for teachers in a big comprehensive Oakland public school. My first day on the job I walked into the classroom where I was assigned to assist and was told by Mr. C, as I’ll call him, “See those kids in the back? They’re special ed. Don’t even bother helping them. They can’t learn.” This heart-wrenching welcome was followed by problems riddled with errors that he brazenly put on the board. When I discreetly corrected him, Mr. C would retort, “It doesn’t matter, they don’t do their work anyway.” I heard Mr. C repeatedly make racist comments, and unfairly profile his black male students (a group OUSD is so concerned with, they now have an entire task force on African American male achievement).

Yet when students and I complained to the administration, we were told there were many complaints logged against Mr. C but all these complaints were simply not enough to cost him his job.

An LA Times investigation confirmed that firing bad teachers is nearly impossible. In the words of Joseph Walker, a former LAUSD principal, “You’re not going to fire someone who’s not doing their job. And if you have someone who’s done something really egregious, there’s only a 50-50 chance that you can fire them.” This sad truth is juxtaposed with a growing consensus that good teaching is the most important factor in student achievement (something teachers have known for a long time).

Multiple studies have confirmed that the difference between an effective teacher and an ineffective teacher can mean a full level of achievement, or more, in one year. A University of Washington study investigating the seniority system recently found that, “student achievement after seniority-based layoffs would drop by an estimated 2.5 to 3.5 months of learning per student, when compared to laying off the least effective teachers.” While teachers may balk at using test scores to determine effectiveness, or even at trying to quantify what makes a good teacher “good”, most of us know one when we see one. Likewise, most of us can spot a “bad” teacher and are aware of how much damage they can cause.

Even if you argue that new and inexperienced teachers are more of a problem than the few grizzled ineffective teachers out there, the seniority system is still affecting our most vulnerable populations. Poor students, students of color, and English Language Learners are disproportionately taught by new or beginning teachers. In February of this year, the court in Reed v. State of California found that, “teachers’ economic interest in retaining their jobs through a seniority-based layoff … is subordinate to students’ fundamental right to receive an education.” In the Reed case, a school full of new, yet highly-regarded, teachers were replaced by a string of long-term subs. Even in cases less egregious than Reed, we must consider that teachers make up the fabric of schools and we cannot or should not be easily swapped out.

The OEA party line is that the seniority system helps us “avoid capricious firing.” Yet what is more capricious than laying off teachers who have found an excellent match in their school site, are committed to their craft, appreciated and respected by their colleagues and students, have proven success in the classroom, and are continuously working to improve? Is firing those teachers less capricious than retaining teachers like Mr. C?

Yes, we need to take steps to help teachers improve at their craft—programs like BTSA are scratching the surface of this issue. But, I fundamentally believe that teaching is not a profession for everyone. We don’t believe that any person with any given skill-set, disposition, intellect, or work ethic can be a doctor or a lawyer. These professions are so highly respected because we know that not everyone has what it takes. Why should teaching be any different?

In March, when I received my pink slip, I heard Mr. C would be continuing on. I was hoping he would have opted for Oakland’s early retirement system, but he did not. Mr. C, and others like him—some worse, some only slightly better—will continue widening the skill gaps for our poor, urban students of color. As President Obama asserted during a speech at the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, “I reject a system that rewards failure and protects a person from its consequences. The stakes are too high. We can afford nothing but the best when it comes to our children’s teachers.”

Katy Murphy

Education reporter for the Oakland Tribune. Contact me at kmurphy@bayareanewsgroup.com.

  • Ex OUSD Teacher

    Hard to not get into this conversation.

    I taught in OUSD for 10 years, went through BTSA program, Helped in the summers as a master teacher to the Oakland teaching fellows, and went from being a “new” rookie teacher to a “veteran” tenure teacher in OUSD

    I say that so I wont get attacked from what Im going to say either from the “Pro” unionist, or the anti-tenure labor busters.

    #1- Test scores are probably the worst gauge of how good a teachers is.
    I say this because there are so many factors that effect test scores. Students being absent or late on test days. The structure and method of testing, the students “perceived” opinion on the importance of the test, and a whole lot of “other factors.” The school I taught in had good scores for 5 years straight and then we took on a “new comers” program for English Language Learners and our scores dropped dramatically! So if you just look at the raw data “scores” those same teachers who got fairly good results in previous years now cant teach? You also get fluctuating class, some are as a whole good classes and others can and will need more remediation and al that shows up on tests scores.

    #2 Many young teachers (OTF and Teach for America) teach for 2 to 4 years and leave to do other things.

    I have seen this so much! A great young teacher from the middle of the USA heartland, come and teach english to inner city students, breath a breath of fresh air into the department and get the kids really performing, and then they leave to finnigh a Masters degree or to go to law school ect. To me personally these etchers are worst than the Mr. C’s of teaching. One year I felt so bad for the incoming 9th graders because a really good english teacher did her 3 years for TFA and then moved on to to what they really wanted to do all along.

    #3 OUSD has a major appreciation problem.

    Many good teacher get sick of the BS and go to other districts. Thats what I did. I get paid more, don’t have to worry about the year threat of the small school im teaching for getting closed, loosing good teachers because of layoffs or because their time is up, and then on top of all of that the detraining factor of how good your school is is based on test scores.

    I can see from a union perspective how this piece is seen as propaganda, but I want mrs. Hatch to know that one day she will be a tenured veteran teacher with children and grandchildren and want to be able to make sure that her job isn’t wrongly snatched from her because of a new wave of young admins and teachers think that here old fashioned way is out of date.

    I can also see how being a young teacher and getting a pink slip sucks especially knowing that there are older teachers who aren’t worth anything. It does feel unfair, but like in all professions there are good workers and bad workers. don’t let the exception make you think its the norm.

  • kwin buebly

    Personnel reductions because of finances, or population demographic changes are nothing new. I quit teaching for 2 years in the late 80’s because all of us new teachers lost their jobs when they closed one of the three high schools. This too shall pass, unfortunately young teachers are a lot like teenagers, they know it all already, even though they haven’t been exposed to many of the horrors of teaching, and do not understand the need for legal protections.

    I love the carping comments about bad teachers; anyone can tell stories of incompetent personnel in ANY job, which make the comments by JR using the go-go career changer all the more insulting; I could bet she never observed any teacher in their classroom, and is slandering all teachers with her innuendos. Let’s hear her comments on CEO’s

    The business world is no stranger to lay offs, where thousands are fired before Christmas to make their bottom lines look better. Where are their protections, and look what has happened to their pensions.

    I feel for our new teachers, many of whom are very good, and could become excellent given time and a greater leavening of life experience.

    Teaching is one of the most demanding jobs I have ever had, almost every teacher I have met is constantly trying to improve, regardless of the lack of support from the public, some parents, and administration.

    Administration is incredibly important: a good principal is a blessing for a school, just as a bad principal can destroy a school. Irregardless, all principles are stuck with district decisions that are often incompetent and counter-productive to students achievement.

    And finally does JR even have any experience as a teacher, or just spews insults at teachers?

  • david laub

    Pink slips require TWO MEASURES. One of them is seniority (date of hire). The second criteria is certification/credentialing (what credentials and certifications the teacher has). It is the combination of the two criteria which determines who is pink slipped.

  • J.R.

    In the overwhelming majority of cases it comes down to seniority(length of service, there have also been young teachers with multiple degrees that have been tossed aside, because its all about time served and you know it.

  • J.R.

    Your answer is right there in my post, the education system has devolved into a jobs bank where people who have attained skills that cannot be translated into the job market and have jobs that are created for them. It’s self propagating jobs machine all supposedly built around the notion and ideal of educating our children. That is part of the reason we as a nation have slipped so far academically in three decades.

  • J.R.

    No, I’m not a teacher(I’m an unbiased observer,and parent),proud of our good and great teacher and deeply ashamed of those teachers that are mailing it in. From district to district I actually observe teachers in their own classrooms during instructional time(unlike their colleagues), who are busy with their own classes. I see firsthand who is effective and who is not. I spend more time in the classrooms than the overworked principals do.

  • Mr. Smithers

    Awesome article. Defenders of Last In First Out are likely mediocre and afraid that they’d be released in a system that uses true accountability.

    I am so proud of this teacher for standing up to her union and its hollow arguments. The most savage thing is that last-in-first-out especially burns black and brown kids. Tenure does too. All so that mediocre (and really bad) teachers can keep their jobs.

    Teachers like Ms. Hatch need to take control of OEA. We need to pay teachers twice their salaries and impose real accountability along with tons of support.

    1950’s sexism benefited teaching because brilliant women couldn’t penetrate finance, law, medicine. Now we have too many mediocre folks going into teaching. It’s bad bad bad.


  • Steven Weinberg

    There is some truth the Mr. Smithers’ statement that schools benefited for years because women were barred from other professions, but I have not noticed any great change in the percentage of brilliant teachers from when I was a student in the 1950s to today.
    Ms. Hatch, there is one comment I should have made to you earlier, but I got caught up debating the issue you raised. I noted that Katie says that your letter has not yet been rescinded. Whatever you think of OEA and the policies surrounding lay-offs (which, by the way, are set by state law, not our local contract), you should keep in contact with OEA and follow their advise about how to respond to the pink slip. In my 40 years of teaching I have seen the union save many teachers’ jobs when the district made errors in following lay-off procedures.
    You should observe that none of those who have praised your position on lay-offs have taken any actions to help save your job. Very few, if any, of them commended the Board of Education when most lay-off letters were revoked. They have a political agenda and are using the plight of teachers like yourself to further that agenda. I wish you good luck in retaining your job.

  • J.R.

    As I have stated before, these laws were bought and paid for by the unions and have no bearing on the education of children, they are for the sole benefit of the unions, and teachers.

    The full and complete text is here:


    “California’s dismissal process includes 10
    different steps that must be taken before
    the dismissal is finalized, perhaps explaining
    why just 100 dismissal hearings were
    heard in the state between 1996 and
    2005, according to the state’s Legislative
    Analyst’s Office”.

    “Although states do not employ teachers
    (districts do), states play a central role in
    policies on teacher evaluation. Most states
    require evaluations only every two or
    three years. Only 13 states require annual
    evaluations of the performance of tenured

    “In terms of teachers’ rights for due process,
    there are two kinds of teachers: those
    with tenure (also known as “continuing
    contract” status) and those without it.
    A veteran teacher with tenure receives
    preferential treatment over newer teachers
    in everything from school assignment to
    dismissal procedures. Tenure also plays a
    role in how frequently a teacher is evaluated,
    typically ranging from a couple of
    times a year for the untenured teacher to
    as seldom as once every five years for the
    tenured teacher”.

    “The practice of “bumping” — in which
    a more senior teacher can simply bump
    another teacher from a position — occurs
    in districts without agreements (e.g.,
    Mobile, Alabama and Fort Worth, Texas)
    just as it does in districts with agreements
    (e.g., Los Angeles, California and
    Anne Arundel County, Maryland)”.

    “Apart from the number of years that a
    teacher serves, state laws tend to put only
    one other condition on a teacher’s eligibility
    for tenure: a record of satisfactory evaluations,
    an achievement that few teachers
    fail to earn”.

    Parents,taxpayers please read this entirely and make up your own mind.

  • Steven Weinberg

    JR You can have your own opinions, but not your own facts. It doesn’t matter how many times you say that lay-off rules were written by teachers’ unions it doesn’t change the fact that the rules were written years before teachers had any rights to bargain collectively. They were written to make teaching a more desirable occupation by eliminating the danger of teachers being fired by local boards for arbitrary reasons.
    I looked at your link and on page 9 it lists the steps boards must go through to terminate a teacher. They did not seem unreasonable to me. The key step is an administrative hearing with one judge picked by the Board, one by the union, and a third picked by the other two. A 2/3rds vote decides the case.
    I am sure there are some details to the process that could be refined, but having a neutral party have the swing vote in making the decisions seems the only fair way for terminations to be handled.

  • J.R.

    First of all, I gave you a link with factual information, not my opinion. Secondly fairness to students will be the TOP priority as taxpayers are showing all over this country. Lastly tenured teachers getting terminated for poor performance is extremely rare which is in effect “a job for life” unless the teacher does something really egregious.

    School districts – 1047
    Teachers – 290,000
    Statewide dismissal hearings 1996-2005 – 100
    How many dismissals – ?????????????(we know its less than 100 statewide)In 9 years!

    Teachers are being shuffled around, instead of being dismissed and thats what most teachers see happening.

    The truth is coming out and taxpayers are deciding for themselves. It’s just a matter of time before things change. It won’t be long because we don’t have the money for the confiscation.

  • AH

    Ms. Hatch, Rachel T. –

    We do not need to rethink our seniority system. If you think it is a revolving door now, just wait . . .

    In the 1940s, my mother taught a small Central Vally town near Visalia. The growers didn’t want tenured teachers, and they controlled the school boards. Every two years, my mother taught in Visalia, and Visalia teachers taught in her district.

    Where is the stability there? How is that good for the kids?

    That is only one example. There is no reason to believe that it won’t happen again. And, this would include you, as well, unless there is some reason to believe that you, and you alone, would somehow escape it.

    Stop feeling sorry for yourselves. And stop it with the mean-spirited whining.

    It’s hard to lose a job, especially in this economy.

    However, it’s getting very hard to be sympathetic, especially the part about “what is the point?” Take Steve Weinberg’s advice and go to the OEA for help.

  • AH

    I copied this from Susan Ohanian’s blog.

    I especially like the bit about the “selfish mossbacks,” which is why I, too, view Ms. Hatch’s piece as propaganda – elegant and well-written, but propaganda, nonetheless.

    I Does Duncan Have a Plan for Teachers

    Does anybody care about all the teachers left behind?

    by Jim Horn

    Does Duncan have a plan for teachers? Sure does, as a matter of fact:

    discourage teachers from getting more training in their fields,

    discourage new teachers from professional preparation,

    evaluate teachers based on test scores that reflect the gaps they cannot close,

    provide pay bonuses based on test scores, thus discouraging teachers from working with the children who need the most help,

    turn teaching into test score production management,

    drain existing teacher resources, cut benefits, and drive down teacher pay by encouraging more corporate welfare charter schools,

    ignore poverty and pretend that teachers can fix poor children with total compliance and brainwashing,

    portray teachers as selfish mossbacks who resist change,

    continue to encourage the resegregation of American schools.

    — Jim Horn
    Schools Matter blog

  • david laub


    Pink slips require TWO MEASURES. One of them is seniority (date of hire). The second criteria is certification/credentialing (what credentials and certifications the teacher has). It is the combination of the two criteria which determines who is pink slipped.

    Like it or not, this IS the set of TWO CRITERION that determine lay-offs. Whether or not your biases allow you to digest this FACT is your own issue.

  • Bones

    David is right. I believe all Bilingual and Sp.Ed teachers were protected from receiving pink slips this year because the supply of available teachers is so small.

  • J.R.

    In the overwhelming majority of cases(since most teachers have similar credentialing ie: multi-subject credentials )seniority is THE deciding factor.You are trying to intentionally muddy the issue and divert attention from the core problem here. Bilingual and sp.ed are specialized federally mandated programs and are at least partially federally subsidized and are thus not pertinent in this discussion.

  • Jennifer Dannenberg

    Annie Hatch makes some good points in her article, but what is the point? Have you ever been to a bad doctor? (I have.) It is the responsibility of administrative staff to evaluate teachers in a supportive way that emphasizes best practices and strategies for improvement, if needed. That said, if teachers don’t improve their practice, they can be fired. All too often teachers go for years and years without an evaluation (administrators are too busy), even though their district contract mandates one.