Randi Goes Rogue: Three Secrets About Teacher Tenure And Seniority

Bob Bowdon Executive Director, Choice Media
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False claims and misstatements aren’t rare on television; but usually when “experts” get something completely wrong, it’s something so arcane that few of us recognize the error amidst the din of “Crossfire” cable cacophony: ‘The growth rate in grain exports to China last year was what? Okay, if you say so.’

Not this time. Here, the whopper so defied ordinary common sense that even a precocious middle schooler might well have called it out. And just for bonus points, it was delivered with unambiguous, assertive clarity.

On August 6, Randi Weingarten, President of the American Federation of Teachers, was a guest on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” offering up the darndest faux factoid: “Most teachers right now in America have less than two years of experience.” You can watch it yourself:

It was an attempt to deflect criticism of the policy known as seniority, where newer teachers are the ones to be laid off during enrollment drops or recessions instead of more experienced teachers without regard to whom might be better at his/her job. ‘Let’s pretend there’s no difference in teacher quality,’ the logic goes, ‘and seniority protections should present no downside to students.’ Or, ‘Pay no attention to the teacher disparities you see with your own eyes in parent/teacher meetings.’ Or, ‘Pay no attention to the range of teacher quality you experienced yourself as a student.’

In other professions, like accounting, sales, health care, media, finance, retail, and software programming, this policy would be considered comedic absurdism. Want to try something fun? Interview people from Silicon Valley and ask them if seniority job protections would make sense at their high-tech software firm. Or ask at a community bank in Ohio. Or an insurance company in Texas.

The policy so contradicts common sense that it’s creating a modern journalistic cliché: “Teacher of the Year Fired by School District.” Just load some friends in a van and take a cross-country road trip from California to Nevada to Wisconsin to New Jersey. You’ll find stops all along the way where some of the best teachers in America were dismissed for the heinous act of having less time on the payroll than their lower-performing colleagues.

But let’s get back to the comment on “Morning Joe.” Randi Weingarten was trying to say that it hardly mattered if weaker teachers with seniority were being protected from accountability since … well, there aren’t many senior teachers left anyway. Pass the smell test for you? Well, she was wrong. Not even close to being right.

In a 2011 report by the National Center for Education information titled, “Profile of Teachers in the U.S.” on page 19 they report that 74 percent of teachers have over five years experience. Meanwhile, data from the National Center for Education Statistics says that in the 2011-12 school year, only 9 percent had less than three years experience (the top data line). Or you could just think about the schools your children attend.

It’s hard to go on TV and say with a straight face that better, younger teachers should always be let go so that more senior teachers can keep their jobs, even if some of the ones protected aren’t very good. So no one exactly says that. Instead, they say there wouldn’t have to be layoffs at all if funding were never cut, even amid dropping enrollment. That means in districts where charter schools, vouchers, homeschooling and family relocation has resulted in thousands of fewer students than just a few years ago (shout out to Chicago, Philadelphia, Los Angeles), they’ll tell you that layoffs or cuts shouldn’t happen in the first place. Their logic says to keep paying those schools for kids who aren’t there, rather than migrate the money to the new schools that are taking on the increased enrollment.

But here’s the first secret for you: the real issue isn’t the traditional “for” or “against” unions debate — they’d like you to think it’s that. The real debate pits the older, longer-serving union member versus the younger, newbie union member. That’s what Ms. Weingarten really doesn’t want you to hear. The unions are run by the seniority-rich, old guard to benefit themselves, without regard to what’s fair to either the students, or (shhh!) newer union-member teachers.

Does that make sense, even to a staunch union supporter? If the union is really dedicated to fighting for all members, why would it even take a position on a member vs. member issue? If my business partner and I retain a lawyer to represent us generally, would it be ethical for that same lawyer to take my partner’s side against my interests on a particular issue? Especially while I’m still contributing financially to the lawyer’s dues … I mean fees?

Here’s a second secret for you: Since newer teachers get paid less, you’ve got to lay off more of them in a seniority-protected layoff, than you would in a performance-protected layoff, (presuming teacher pay can’t be connected to merit, another absurdism the unions hold dear). Laying off more total teachers results in (Shhh!) larger class sizes than if you simply cut staff based on weakest performance. The unions love sounding the “small classes” cry far and wide when a spending increase is on the table, and achieving smaller classes could justify the bigger budgets. But then, you can hear cricket sounds from teachers unions about class size once seniority protections are brought up.

Of course, they’ll tell you that without seniority protections, even the great senior teachers will be laid off en masse, since they cost more in salary. Then I like to say, “So school districts without competition from charter or voucher schools really don’t care about quality at all, eh? Because that’s what you’re saying, right? They’ll lay off those great senior teachers just to save money, proving that without competition the district doesn’t value quality?” There’s usually not a substantive response to this. But despite my self-congratulatory rhetoric, real-life layoff decisions shouldn’t be connected to seniority at all — just performance.

Four days later, Randi Weingarten was once again a guest on MSNBC, this time in the more comfortable confines of the eponymous “Melissa Harris-Perry” program. The discussion was about how many months does it take to fire an incompetent teacher. Derrell Bradford of New York Campaign for Achievement Now and a board member for the Partnership for Educational Justice said “it costs $300,000 and takes 830 days to remove a teacher who is demonstrated as ineffective on student achievement.” He was correctly citing a 2008 report by the New York State School Boards Association. (The amount was actually $313,000, so his rounding off was charitable.)

Randi Weingarten responded with, “We shouldn’t live in an evidence-free zone.” A strident start, for a woman who had just erroneously announced on national television less than a week before that “Most teachers right now in America have less than two years of experience,” wouldn’t you say? Then a bit later, she offers, “right now in New York State it takes an average of about 150 days to do these cases … What UFT [United Federation of Teachers, the New York City teachers union] just put out last week was that the median takes about 100 days.” To be specific, they told Education Week that the median time for serving a teacher with charges to a settlement was 105 days. Hold the phone.

First, not to get all statistical on you, but she uses “median” for a reason. Median just means the middle data point, or when presented graphically, the data point with as many dots to the left as to the right. As an example to illustrate the definition of median, if 50.1 percent of the tenure cases took exactly 105 days to resolve, and the other 49.9 percent took exactly 20 years — the median would be 105 days — meanwhile, the “average” would be about 10 years. The trick here is that when data points are clumped together on the left side of the distribution, citing the median instead of average makes the numbers sound smaller than they really are.

More importantly, the figure of 105 days resolution time, according to Education Week, only pertained to 484 of the 637 cases opened in a two-year period. That leaves out 153, or 24 percent of the cases.

Therefore, the most fair way to have stated these data would have been, “If you trust the union’s own data, and then leave out about a quarter of the cases which aren’t convenient for them, it takes a median of over three months to resolve the easy cases, although the average is likely higher.” Wouldn’t have sounded quite as pithy on television, would it have?

Which brings us to our third and final secret for you: This resolution time discussion is a distraction from the real issue of seniority — it’s a complete head fake. A recent study by Katharine Stevens at Columbia University found that in the 10-year period from 1997 to 2007, just 12 teachers in New York City were dismissed for incompetence. That’s out of about 75,000 at any given time, or less than two one-thousandths of a percent. More recent data from the past two years cited by the Wall Street Journal showed that out of 496 misconduct or incompetence cases resolved, only 40 have resulted in termination so far. That is five one-thousandths of one percent.

Whether the tenure hearing process takes 830 days or 1 day, (Shhhh!) that’s not what the union really cares about. They care about the fact that 99.9 percent of tenured teachers will never face dismissal for cause. It means as long as you’re not convicted of a felony, but if you’re only, say, incompetent in the course material you’re supposed to be teaching, or perhaps just garden-variety lazy, there will be no consequences for your under-performance during your entire teaching career. As long as that stays true, it turns out the union army is happy to yield a bit on defending the worst pedophiles or other egregious cases. They can even go on TV and get some PR out of it.

Some union leaders have said lately that they’d like to rename teacher tenure “due process,” I’d like to suggest a small edit. How about we call it, “Due process for one-tenth of a percent”? Then can we have a conversation about accountability for the other 99.9 percent?

The bottom line is that all three of the secrets listed above have been missing from these talk shows about teacher tenure and seniority, and what we get instead is often misleading or just plain wrong. The truth is that everyone should be evaluated on merit, whether they’re a teacher, an education reformer or the president of the American Federation of Teachers.

(Thanks to Matt Ladner and Dave Dorsey.)