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Originally published Tuesday, March 23, 2010 at 3:52 PM

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Guest columnist

Teacher seniority pays off, especially for students

Teacher seniority helps ensure quality education for students, writes guest columnist Patricia Bailey. The Seattle School Board should not try to undo seniority in upcoming negotiations, as some community petitions are urging.

Special to The Times

WITH community petitions calling for the Seattle School Board to undo teacher seniority in the upcoming negotiations, it's time to put an end to the myth about ineffective public-school teachers being protected from termination. Those of us who teach in the K-12 public schools use seniority, like all union and governmental jobs, to determine the order of layoffs, but seniority is not the same as tenure.

We do not have the lifetime job security afforded a tenured judge or professor. Unlike them, we can be dismissed for doing an ineffective job. In fact, the recent district audit by McKinsey & Co. noted the district's underutilization of the job-termination mechanisms already in place in the teacher contract. In Seattle, student performance has long been a part of teacher evaluations and can factor into an unsatisfactory evaluation.

If principals are doing their state-mandated duty to evaluate teacher performance, how could there be unsatisfactory teachers in the classroom? During a Seattle teacher's first two years of employment, he or she can be dismissed without probable cause. This is the time for principals to evaluate and counsel out those new, but unsuited, to the profession.

After two years, teachers are afforded due process before termination, but this does not prevent a principal from evaluating someone as "unsatisfactory" and pursuing dismissal. After giving the teacher a chance to improve, employment can be terminated. It is as simple as that.

Using seniority to determine the order of layoffs is the only fair way to decide between who should lose his or her job when two workers are both evaluated "satisfactory." Seniority eliminates any possibility of layoffs being capricious, arbitrary or discriminatory, or from using layoffs for retaliation or domination purposes. It also encourages the retention of experienced teachers.

High-quality teaching comes with experience. Studies show it takes about five years for teachers to reach optimum knowledge and skills and become truly proficient in the classroom. There is no denying the exuberance of a new teacher can be a delightful addition to a school, but this should not be confused with high-quality teaching, which occurs in classrooms featuring perhaps less fanfare and more-refined techniques.

If a district wants high-quality staffs, then it should protect those teachers with five or more years. It should also recognize that teachers of four years have more professional growth under their belt and are closer to reaching their optimal teaching years than a first-year teacher. Consequently, the "last hired is the first fired" ensures the best professional services for our students.

But perhaps the most compelling reason to keep seniority is as a voice for student health and academic achievement. Generally speaking, it is senior teachers who speak out on controversial decisions including school closures, textbook adoptions, increases in class size and other student-impacting issues. If teachers feel their jobs are threatened, I fear these voices would be silenced.

Contrary to urban lore, the teacher's union cannot prevent terminations if the district administration has done its job properly. In Seattle, student performance is already part of teacher evaluations, so when organizations call for the elimination of seniority or the use of high-stakes state test scores in determining layoffs, they are misguided.

Although it might financially benefit a district's budget to keep inexperienced teachers over their seasoned counterparts, it is sheer folly to suggest it could lead to better student outcomes. As the saying goes, "a new broom may be stiff, but an old one knows the corners."

Seniority comes with a cost, but for the student, it is priceless.

Patricia (Pat) Bailey, a veteran Seattle teacher, is a former executive board director of the Seattle Education Association.

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