Seniority policy puts Futures Elementary teachers at risk
Activists gathered in Sacramento Monday as part of a weeklong demonstration against budget cuts to schools. Sixty-five protesters were arrested for staging an after-hours sit-in at the state capitol. Teachers unions are asking lawmakers to extend taxes to support schools, and they’ve scheduled another sit-in for Friday.
As elected officials sort out California’s budget, with further cuts to education expected, public school districts are preparing to lay off teachers. State law says they have to do it in a certain order. You might have heard it before: “last-hired, first-fired.”
In March, 20,000 teachers across the state received notices warning them that they might lose their jobs. In Oakland alone, more than 500 teachers got those notices. And even though the district followed the “last-hired, first-fired” requirement, more than half the staff members at 26 schools were told they might lose their jobs. Reporter Lillian Mongeau visited a school that could lose almost every single faculty member: Futures Elementary in East Oakland.
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LILLIAN MONGEAU: Futures Elementary is a new school. It’s only three years old. It was created to replace a failing school, where student scores on standardized tests were some of the worst in Oakland. Now, kids at Futures have some of the highest test scores in the district.
ANNA BLAKE: Your first word is fast. Say the sounds.
BLAKE: Let’s see who can write it down quickly.
First grade teacher Anna Blake has been here since Futures was founded in 2007. She says school leaders decided to take a new approach to teaching the low-income kids in this East Oakland neighborhood.
BLAKE: The idea is we have smaller class sizes and we’re better able to meet the needs of our students and really teach to the whole child and teach to the students from where they are when they come into the classroom and not just treat them like they don’t know anything.
It sounds simple, but this approach is pretty rare – and at Futures, it seems to be working. Maria Del Toro says she’s seen huge changes in her son from the beginning of the year until now.
MARIA DEL TORO: When he came to kindergarten he didn’t know a lot of writing, not even holding his pencil, but now he’s like, wow, reading. He can write. He’s really, really good.
Del Toro’s son made that progress with the help of one of the newest teachers in the district. That’s because when Futures was established, all of the teachers from the previous school had to reapply for his or her position. Few did. So Futures filled its classrooms with newer, less experienced teachers. School board member Noel Gallo says he’s not surprised the new teachers have led the school to success so quickly.
NOEL GALLO: After a while those of us of a certain age get burned out. We have to do something else and not retire on the job. And we have some teachers that are trying to retire on the job.
That’s what many people think was happening at the failing school before Futures was established – the veteran teachers were burned out. The school is now led by young teachers. So when over 60 faced possible layoffs this spring, the new teachers at schools like Futures were the first on the list. The president of the teachers’ union, Betty Olson-Jones, says that’s as it should be.
BETTY OLSON-JONES: Experience alone doesn’t necessarily make a great teacher, but it certainly contributes a very huge percentage.
Olson-Jones says seniority is a protection against arbitrary firings and it's still the best policy for hiring and firing. She also argues that the recent improvement at Futures under young teachers is not a sign that the older teachers who were there before had retired on the job.
OLSON-JONES: I’m not going to say that kids aren’t working hard or working, you know, achieving at Futures. I’m certainly not going to say that. But I think it’s a little too easy to say, “Oh, it must have been the fault of veteran teachers.” I don’t buy that.
Olson-Jones says the struggles at the school before it was redesigned were the fault of poverty, poor funding, and large class sizes. And she says the high test scores students are earning at Futures today aren’t a fair measure of achievement.
OLSON-JONES: When test scores measure everything, then the push is to get higher test scores. And we’ve seen it over and over throughout the district. You’ll see a big jump in test scores. Does that mean kids are really learning or does it mean they’ve been primed to take the test? I don’t know.
It’s an important question. The debate about whether test scores are a valid measure of teacher performance is raging in the education world. Some say it’s okay to evaluate teachers based on how much their students improve on standardized tests, but not on their raw scores. Others say test scores should be used only as one part of a holistic evaluation. Still others, like Olson-Jones, don’t want to see student test scores used on teacher evaluations at all.
In the meantime, there’s just one yardstick for performance in California: seniority. District spokesman Troy Flint knows the policy puts schools with new staffs at risk.
TROY FLINT: Nobody wants to see this happen but again, this is a consequence of a law that’s devised without concerns for outcomes to children.
The kids at young schools like Futures Elementary face the most drastic consequences. In a budget situation like the one the school faced in March, nine of the city’s most-improved schools stood to lose over half their staff – all due to seniority-based layoffs. That includes Futures, where every single teacher and administrator got a pink slip. In the end, the school avoided layoffs with a last minute budget change.
BLAKE: Jacobi, what’s your sentence?
First-grade teacher Anna Blake says she’s still growing as a teacher. She worries that if she and every other teacher at her school got laid off, her kids wouldn’t see a single familiar face when they return here in the fall. She says she has no patience with the idea that prioritizing jobs for senior teachers would be best for her kids.
BLAKE: I agree that experience definitely, in teaching, brings so much more to a classroom. Experience, if directed right, brings so much more to a school and helps create that stability. However, those teachers are not here at our school right now and they haven’t been for years.
STUDENT: A truck is faster than a person.
But young teachers like Anna Blake are here – and so are the students’ parents, like Larry Marcellus Candies. He grew up in East Oakland. He walks his son to school at Futures every morning and then stays with the boy to listen to him read out loud.
LARRY MARCELLUS CANDIES: My number one job, in my life—I’m a single parent. My number one job is to make sure my son gets an education. I have no other job.
Part of this job, as Candies sees it, is to keep tabs on how well the teachers are doing. He makes it his business to observe his son’s classes from time to time and he's pleased with what he sees.
CANDIES: These teachers here are excellent teachers. A lot of these teachers here, they came from different areas because the teachers that here before weren’t doing their jobs. How do you expect these teachers to stay if they’re not getting paid and everything they do they get cut? And the inner city schools lose out. We lose out all the time. It’s been like that since I was a kid.
And schools like Futures could face losing out again next year. Blake's job was saved – for now. The district spent every cent it had left to hold on to teachers’ jobs for September. But now that money is gone. And if the state budget doesn’t include an extension of current taxes, Blake's teaching job won't be saved again. So while the first-hired, first-fired regulation remains intact, the future of Futures Elementary – and schools like it – remains uncertain.
For Crosscurrents, I’m Lillian Mongeau.
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HOLLY KERNAN: So the debate around seniority is particularly important right now as California faces really tough budget cuts. We couldn't fit it into your report, but in Southern California they actually sued over this. Explain what happened.
LILLIAN MONGEAU: So the A.C.L.U. sued the L.A. school district and they said, you're basically messing with the rights, the constitutional rights of children to an equal education by no protecting these schools where whole bunches of teachers would get laid off - almost the whole staff in some cases. And they basically said that there is a loophole in the seniority law that allows you to change the rules if it messes with constitutional rights to equal protection of the law and they won the case essentially. They ended up settling with the L.A. school district. L.A. has agreed. They're now protecting specific schools. The union down there is upset about this and they're appealing the decision.
KERNAN: What's been the effect?
MONGEAU: Well. It's a little hard to say right now. They're facing layoffs in the same way Oakland is and so they're putting into place this year for the first time, as they look at layoffs down there, they're putting this protection model into place. Sacramento has followed suit. They, without any suing, they decided to do the same thing and so the superintendent there has chosen a certain number of schools that he considers his priority and they're protecting those schools from layoffs.
KERNAN: How interesting. Now how is the teachers union reacting?
MONGEAU: The California teachers union?
MONGEAU: They don't like this idea. I mean the teachers unions are in favor of seniority because it's the way it's been done and it was, as the teachers union president in Oakland pointed out, it was put in place to keep principals from being able to just arbitrarily fire whoever they want. There's also a really big problem with other ways to judge teacher performance. The only thing people have come up with is test-score based and there are a lot of problems with that. So unions are worried that the teachers will start being judged based on almost nothing and they think seniority is a better measure than nothing.
Lillian Mongeau is a student at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism.