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Evidence that Teacher Seniority Rights Do Not Negatively Impact Teacher Placement in Disadvantaged or Hard-to-Staff Schools


Koski and Horng, as part of the “Getting Down to Facts” research project conducted by Stanford at the request of California lawmakers, examined whether the legal, policy, and contractual structure in California constrain efforts to get highly-qualified teachers into more difficult teaching assignments.  The study found “no persuasive and systematic evidence that the seniority preference rules in collective bargaining agreements independently affect the distribution of teachers among schools or exacerbate the negative relationship between higher minority schools and teacher quality.”  The authors concluded that, “Merely changing the language of teacher-assignment provisions in collective bargaining agreements will do little to close the teacher-quality gap.”  

In this study, researchers examined what happens when a single urban school district eliminated seniority-based hiring preferences and moved toward a hiring system based on the mutual consent of teachers and schools.  They looked particularly at whether the distribution of teacher experience in the school district changed after the elimination of the seniority-based hiring, and if teacher turnover rates changed in the school district after the policy shift. They were interested in not only in general level and trends in these factors, but also in the effects on disadvantaged schools, which typically face the most challenging staffing issues.  Researchers concluded that, “On balance, we come away from this analysis with the impression that the elimination of seniority preferences did little to change the overall level of experience in the urban district’s schools and, moreover, did nothing to change the distribution of experience in disadvantaged schools.”

Using a large national database, the author found, “no evidence that collective bargaining agreements contribute to shortages of qualified teachers in urban high-poverty schools.”  If anything, the evidence indicates that collective bargaining is associated with lower transfer rates out of urban high-poverty schools…Without a collective bargaining agreement, high-poverty schools hire first-year teachers at three times the rate of low-poverty schools.”  

The author also noted that, “The attention focused on teacher seniority and collective bargaining as causes of the urban teacher shortage needs to be redirected to solutions for the real problem: attracting and retaining teachers who are prepared to teach in urban schools. To make substantial progress in addressing the underlying problem of how to increase the supply of qualified teachers ready to teach in urban schools, reform efforts must address the real and measurable issues of improving school and neighborhood safety, establishing and maintaining orderly schools, and providing teachers with necessary professional and administrative support, reasonable workloads and class sizes, as well as attractive facilities and well-stocked classrooms.” 

In 2005, the authors analyzed a ballot measure introduced by then-Governor Schwarzenegger to increase the length of time necessary for a teacher to be granted permanent status (seniority rights) from the perspective of past research.  They noted that the proposition called for a need for “greater flexibility” in teacher assignment, so that more “effective” teachers could be moved to more challenging schools.  However, the concluded that, “there is little evidence that simply involuntarily reassigning more effective or more experienced teachers would accomplish the goal of improving student performance. Quite the opposite may be true. Involuntary assignment tends to trigger resentment among teachers and could have the effect of driving them out of the school district or out of the profession altogether.”   As with the AFT study, the authors noted that attracting highly-qualified teachers to challenging schools requires a combination of efforts that include quality principals and improved working conditions. 

Evidence that Teacher Collective Bargaining Rights and Unionism Actually Improve Student Learning

The author reviewed 17 prominent studies that looked at the teacher union-student achievement link, and concluded that, “the evidence suggests that unionism raises achievement modestly for most students in public schools. These favorable patterns on unionism include higher math and verbal standardized test scores, and very possibly, an increased likelihood of high school graduation… favorable union effects were also found at the elementary level.”  Several common explanations were given for this link, including higher salary and benefits attracting highly-qualified and experience teachers, greater senses of professionalism and dignity amongst teachers, a collective voice for teachers to raise concerns, union support for practices that improve student learning (such as small class sizes), and that, “unions ‘shock’ management, schools, or both, into becoming more effective organizations.” 

The author concludes that, “Policy makers should view teacher unions more as collaborators than as adversaries” and that, “unions have a solid track record of supporting policies that boost achievement for most students.” 

The authors’ review of SAT scores across all states concluded that average SAT scores are 43% higher in states with high levels of teacher-unionism (teachers covered by collective bargaining agreements) that in states with low levels.  And, when schools with teacher collective bargaining agreements are removed from the analysis completely, average SAT scores drop.  The authors concluded that, Data from this study demonstrates that ‘breaking the unions’ will hurt, not help students’ performance.” 

In this paper, the authors examine the role that teachers unions and collective bargaining have on determining who teaches, how teachers are assigned, the support they receive, and how they are assessed.  The authors note that critics of teachers unions who argue that decisions about teacher hiring, assignment, discipline and dismissal should lie solely in the hands of management are overlooking the fact that “schools will not improve without teachers’ dedicated efforts.”  And, they note, even if collective bargaining were eliminated immediately, “There is no certainty that teacher quality would improve. For there is no evidence that school management was more effective before collective bargaining or that schools in non-unionized states adopt more effective policies and practices with regard to improving teacher quality.”  They go on to note that collective bargaining could play a central role in improving teacher quality and student learning, but that both sides will need to work together to make that happen.

Evidence of the Positive Impact of Teacher Experience on Improved Student Learning 

This study examined how teacher quality is defined, how it can be measured, and its impacts on student learning.  The study found teacher experience to be a key factor contributing to student learning.  “There is substantial evidence of yearly growth in teachers’ ability as measured by their contribution to student learning in their first five years of experience.”  

This study examined the role of various elements of teacher training, experience and productivity on student achievement.  The authors found that teacher experience “enhances teacher productivity at all grade levels in reading and in both elementary and middle-school math.”  

This review of empirical evidence in a variety of studies of the impact of teacher attributes on student achievement found a positive effect of teacher experience on teacher effectiveness, and in turn student learning.

Every child deserves a chance to learn and no child succeeds alone.

© 1999- California Teachers Association