Seniority and Teacher Effectiveness

NJEA’s latest press release decries the “catastrophic impact on public education” in NJ if the Legislature passes a bill that will give retirement incentives to teachers. The bill would coax teachers of retirement age to bow out by August 1st and elude the new health benefits contributions and formulas that could potentially lower pensions. In effect, the bill will also lower payroll costs across school districts since salary rises with seniority, regardless of performance. (According to Ed. Comm. Bret Schundler, salaries and benefits of new teachers cost 83% more than new hires.) Says NJEA President Barbara Keshishian, “Whether the governor realizes it or not, his legislation would be an all-out assault on the very future of public education in New Jersey. He is threatening to do irreparable damage to every public school system in the state, and to the 1.4 million students we teach.”

What would be the real impact on students if older, more experienced school teachers left and were replaced by less experienced instructors? After all, NJEA believes “as many as 30,000 could retire by Aug. 1st,” or about 14%, a substantial turnover. Will this bill do “irreparable damage?”

Ms. Keshishian says “yes”: “Christie’s proposal could cause thousands of veteran, talented teachers to retire before they would normally do so,” Keshishian predicts, “plunging districts into chaos as they scramble to hire new staff just a month before classes resume in September.” No doubt some wonderful, talented jewels of the profession would move on. But unacknowledged in her panicky diatribe is the well-established fact that additional years of experience do not improve teacher effectiveness.

In a study published in Education Next, “A Close Look at Teacher Experience,” three researchers conclude that “Teachers make long strides in their first three years, with very little experience-related improvement after that. The students of third-year teachers score 6 percent and 3 percent of a standard deviation higher in math and reading, respectively, than students of first-year teachers.” From The New Teacher Project’s study, “A Smarter Teacher Lay-off System:" “Seniority-based layoff policies are frequently defended with the logic that more experienced teachers are better teachers. This is not necessarily true. Numerous studies have demonstrated that teachers improve the most over the course of their first years in the classroom, then level off in effectiveness.” Study after study, in fact, shows that a twenty-year teacher is no more effective than a five-year teacher, and teachers themselves are well aware of this. The TNTP study surveyed 9,000 teachers in two large urban districts about lay-off policies:u
Teachers in these two districts overwhelmingly rejected quality-blind layoff rules. When asked whether factors other than length of service should be considered in layoff decisions, 74 percent of teachers in District A and 77 percent of teachers in District B said “yes.” A majority of teachers at every experience level favored considering factors other than seniority. Even among teachers with 30 or more years of experience, 51 percent of teachers in District A and 57 percent in District B indicated that other factors should be considered.
Instead of panicking at the prospect of an unprecedented number of teacher retirements, here’s an opportunity to reexamine our flawed assumptions about teacher effectiveness, i.e., more years in the classroom yields better teachers. If we are truly to have an influx of new teachers, as Keshishian predicats, then why don’t we gather information on our rookies’ ed schools and try to gauge effectiveness of training? Why not do some controlled studies on professional development to determine the efficacy of various in-service training? The role of mentors? The value of certification?

Effective teaching is not about accumulating years of service, even if our salary guides perpetuate that myth. Teachers, administrators, and school boards know this. So, what makes a good teacher? Maybe this is our chance to figure it out.