Teacher seniority still impedes school improvement

In Boston, it doesn’t matter if you’re a gifted new teacher with exquisite subject expertise and the ability to enliven material for even the hardest-to-reach students. You might even be the top teacher in the state. If someone with more seniority comes along with designs on your job, you’re still toast.

Last year, a dynamic, five-year teacher at Monument High School in South Boston — Adam Gray — was named Massachusetts Teacher of the Year. A short time later he was bumped by a more senior teacher when the struggling school was merged with another district high school. Gray rebounded this year with a job at one of the city’s elite exam schools, Boston Latin School. He is certainly an asset at his new school. But at an underperforming school, Gray is a life-changer. It’s a disgrace that a teacher of his caliber could be stripped of his calling to educate underachieving students solely because of seniority.

Because of cases like these, at-large City Councilor John Connolly, a former teacher himself, is beating the bushes for teachers and principals willing to testify at a hearing Thursday on how seniority-driven teacher reassignment policies are holding Boston schools back. It will take unusual courage for classroom teachers and school leaders to stand up in public and address issues such as “bumping’’ — the replacement, based on seniority, of rising stars by older, less-effective colleagues. But this discussion needs to happen. Sometimes what passes for 25 years of experience is little more than one uninspired year of teaching repeated 25 times.


Connolly’s hearing is timed to put pressure on both the Boston Teachers Union and the school department to resolve a contract dispute that has dragged on for two years. Both sides have reportedly agreed to measures that would limit seniority in the reassignment process. That’s admirable. But they remain far apart on how big a salary boost teachers should receive for agreeing to the overall reform package that includes a longer school day.

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Connolly is focused largely on so-called provisionals — non-tenured teachers with less than three years on the job who get shunted aside during the reassignment process.

“It happens every year,’’ said Connolly. “We devour our provisionals.’’

It’s an apt metaphor. Protecting the young is the first rule of survival for any species. But not in Boston schools.

The nonprofit Boston Municipal Research Bureau highlighted the seniority problem in a March special report and again this week during City Council testimony on the progress of the teachers’ contract. Its latest figures show that 265 tenured teachers were placed in schools this year with little or no input from school principals or personnel subcommittees. Some emerged from a so-called excess pool in which unassigned teachers bid on jobs based on seniority. Others were simply dumped on schools by the central office. In September, up to 175 teachers could be similarly assigned, according to the research bureau.


Until this week, the seniority issue appeared headed for a statewide vote. A ballot initiative, sponsored by the group Stand for Children, would have amended a state law prohibiting the layoff of permanent teachers who are certified for a position held by a provisional teacher. But neither Stand for Children nor the opposing Massachusetts Teachers Association seemed to have the stomach for a divisive and expensive fight. Instead, they agreed on a compromise bill that would elevate instructional quality and performance above seniority when deciding who to place and keep in the classroom.

It’s a mature compromise. But its success will depend on major improvements to the current methods used to evaluate teachers. And the reform doesn’t kick in until 2016. That’s way too late for Boston.

The Boston Teachers Union contract expired two years ago. Councilor Connolly pointed out that the city’s teachers will get a retroactive check when the union and the city ink a new deal. But there will be no retroactive benefits for students who were deprived of an extended school day and better teacher hiring practices.

Worse still, many students are destined to spend another year in classrooms led by teachers whose best skill is hanging on.

Lawrence Harmon can be reached at harmon@globe.com.