Why Schools Treat Teachers Like Widgets

Critics loath the practice of not allowing schools to pick their teachers freely. But the system evolved this way for a reason.

Up until the Great Depression, principals had wide latitude in hiring. They could handpick whose salaries would rise and whose would fall, said Henry Levin, economics professor at Teachers College of Columbia University. They could fire teachers for going to a Baptist church instead of a Lutheran one. Labor unions fought for clear and consistent rules, tying salaries and transfer rights to seniority.

Camille Zombro, president of the San Diego teachers union, said seniority is useful as a “blind criterion” for painful choices such as deciding who has to leave when a school enrolls fewer children.

Others argue that the resulting systems are willfully blind. The New Teacher Project, a national nonprofit, decries the limits on hiring as an example of “the widget effect” — institutionally treating teachers as interchangeable and overlooking their unique skills.

Everyone seems to agree that teachers matter, but scholars question how much. Some researchers argue that linking the best teachers to the neediest children could actually close the achievement gap between poor and wealthy children. President Obama has called teachers “the single most important factor in a great education.”

Studies have shown that teachers have more influence than class sizes or other factors that schools control. But no one has proven that good teaching matters more to students’ success than forces at home.

Skeptics counter that parent education and malnutrition have massive impacts on students that good teachers might not overcome. And no one can even agree on how to identify those good teachers.

Right or wrong, matching children with the best teachers is a remote option for principals who have little leeway to choose their staff. Forced hiring also undermines the trust and collaboration that studies increasingly show is essential for good schools.

School districts have good reasons to guarantee jobs for displaced teachers. Finding jobs for existing teachers before hiring new ones is a way to control costs.

And if teachers could lose their livelihoods whenever their schools lost enrollment, they might avoid neighborhoods where families move in and out. Eroding that job security could also discourage people from becoming teachers in the first place. The system has a rationale. But it still bothers principals.

“Why do we have to put people where they don’t want to be?” asked Cindy Marten, principal of Central Elementary. “What if the system was different?”

– EMILY ALPERT

 

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Dagny Salas

Dagny Salas

Dagny Salas was the former web editor at Voice of San Diego from 2010 to 2013. She was an investigative fellow at VOSD from 2009 to 2010.

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