Teacher Time Warp

Check out this quote from today’s Wall Street Journal story about the painful teacher layoffs occurring around the country due to budget shortfalls. Let me know if you see anything strange about it. Mr. Bafia is defending the seniority system, which is used in most school districts to determine who gets let go. Last hired, first fired, in other words. As opposed to an alternative, which NYC Schools Chancellor Joel Klein and others have proposed—which is to consider teachers’ performance as one relevant factor when figuring out whom to let go (another way of saying, hey, this job is really important. Let’s at least consider the interests of the students in the classroom when we make these decisions):

“We don’t want to go back to the ‘50s or ‘60s, when people were laid off because of the color of their skin or because a woman was pregnant,” said Glenn Bafia, executive director of the Seattle Education Association, a teachers union.

OK, this quote captures something really unusual and important about the strange culture of American public schools. First of all, to state the obvious: No, we don’t want to go back to the ‘50s and ‘60s when people were laid off because of the color of their skin or because a woman was pregnant. We also don’t want to go back to 1910, when women couldn’t vote. Or to 1945, when African-Americans were segregated into “separate-but-equal” schools and train cars under the authority of the Supreme Court. That would be no good at all.

Here’s the thing: There is no chance of going back to such a time just because we start considering effectiveness when we have to lay off teachers. If Mr. Bafia had said, “We don’t want to go back to the time of slavery,” surely this WSJ reporter would have asked a follow-up question (like, “What are you talking about? Why would this lead to that?”) and included the response. Or cut the quote altogether. But for reasons I do not entirely understand, this quote was allowed to stand without any context.

So allow me to add that context here. The fact is, there are layers upon layers of state and federal laws that make it illegal to terminate people’s jobs based on the color of their skin or the fact that they are pregnant. Or, to quote the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission:

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 protects individuals against employment discrimination on the basis of race and color as well as national origin, sex, or religion. It is unlawful to discriminate against any employee or applicant for employment because of race or color in regard to hiring, termination, promotion, compensation, job training, or any other term, condition, or privilege of employment.

Amen to that. And to this:

The Pregnancy Discrimination Act amended Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Discrimination on the basis of pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions constitutes unlawful sex discrimination under Title VII, which covers employers with 15 or more employees, including state and local governments.

Thank God.

Now, why are some teachers and their union reps still talking as if these laws are not on the books? And what to make of this quote from Lynn Nordgren, president of the Minneapolis teachers union, also from the WSJ story today:

“[S]eniority gives us a fair way of saying how do we lay people off in a way that’s equitable.”

Equitable to whom? Equitable to the kids in the school? If not, why not? Aren’t the kids the main purpose of the school? Or are the schools built to provide stable, permanent employment for adults?

Ms. Nordgren says that poor-performing teachers are already being let go in Minneapolis. I hope that’s true, but it is not even close to reality in the vast majority of American schools. In a 2009 report called the Widget Effect, which analyzed 12 diverse districts in 4 states, half of the districts studied had not dismissed a single tenured teacher for poor performance in the past five years. None had dismissed more than a few.

Instead, consider what happens in New York City every day. Six hundred teachers who have been accused of misconduct or incompetence report to “work” every day, sitting in six special rooms around the city doing nothing. They punch a time clock and then they go to sleep, play cards or chat. Let me say again: 600 teachers. Why? Because in the upside down world of education, the city’s contract with the union requires that any charges against them be heard by an arbitrator and, until the charges are fully resolved, they continue to get paid and accrue their pensions and other benefits. (To read the best story ever written on upside down world, in my opinion, check out Steven Brill’s 2009 New Yorker story on the “rubber rooms.”)

The combined laws of New York City, New York state and the United States of America are not good enough for the people responsible for teaching children in New York City. So here we are, in upside down world, where the people getting discriminated against—systematically, without regard to the effects on their future earnings and happiness—are the short people we like to lovingly call “the future.”

EducationAmanda Ripley