Seniority shouldn't drive school staffing decisions
Seniority shouldn't drive school staffing decisions

Seniority shouldn't drive school staffing decisions

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People of color make up 58% of students in the Madison School District but only 13% of teachers, according to the state Department of Public Instruction.

That’s why the district is smart to prioritize hiring and retention policies that promote diversity. Teachers who look more like their students and who come from similar cultures can, in many cases, inspire greater achievement.

As David Figlio, dean of the School of Education and Social Policy at Northwestern University, writes for the Brookings Institute: “Minority students often perform better on standardized tests, have improved attendance, and are suspended less frequently (which may suggest either different degrees of behavior or different treatment, or both) when they have at least one same-race teacher.”

Madison School District administrators recently proposed several worthy changes to district policy to diversify their workforce. The district wants to base layoff decisions on teacher qualifications, rather than seniority. The longest-serving teachers with the most seniority tend to be white, while newer hires are more likely to be Latino, black, Asian or more than one race.

Instead of years of service, the district wants to base staffing decisions on teacher evaluation scores, training, certifications and what the district calls “cultural competency,” which is the ability to understand and interact effectively with students of color.

The district also would downplay seniority for school assignments. That way, younger and more diverse teachers could enjoy more stability. Currently, younger teachers tend to be shuffled from school to school every year, hurting retention.

The teachers union appears skeptical. And we wouldn’t dismiss the importance of experience or dedication to the job.

But diversity is a pressing concern in Madison. The district shouldn’t be laying off its relatively few black teachers, for example, when so many black students are struggling to graduate. Just 3% of teachers in the Madison district are black, while 18% of students are black. And only 66% of black students graduate from high school in four years.

Layoffs are a possibility because enrollment is down a bit, and because the coronavirus pandemic has triggered a recession, which could lead to cuts in state aid to schools. Yet the district continues to fill vacant positions because so many young and highly qualified teachers of color are looking for jobs, district officials explained. It’s an ideal time to find talent. Moreover, high-demand people with the right skills will be needed next school year no matter what happens to the economy.

The School Board should approve the changes. The shift from honoring seniority to prioritizing what’s best for students is overdue.

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