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Teacher Seniority

Why Classroom Experience Matters

by SETH SANDRONSKY

Marcos Breton, a veteran columnist for The Sacramento Bee, one of 30 newspapers The McClatchy Co. publishes, did it. In “Sacramento’s teachers have won this battle,” April 13, 2014, he bashes these union members, and inverts logic:

According to him, kids in the Sacramento City Unified School District’s poor neighborhood schools and Jonathan P. Raymond, former superintendent of Sac City and 2006 graduate of the Broad Superintendents Academy, won when the Sacramento City Teachers Association lost.  Breton writes: “It was Raymond who beat the union in court, allowing the district to sidestep teacher seniority rules at low-income campuses as a means of making sure nothing got in the way of putting strong teachers in struggling schools.”

The context to Breton’s column was the SCUSD’s April 9 withdrawal from the California Office to Reform Education waiver from the federal No Child Left Behind. Rick Miller is CORE’s executive director, and Principal in Capitol Impact, LLC (limited liability company), a private consulting firm, with West Sacramento Mayor Christopher Cabaldon and Sacramento City Councilmember Jay Schenirer.

The SCTA played a role in the SCUSD’s withdrawal from the CORE waiver in part through joining forces with other unions and activist community groups. SCTA allies included the Service Employees International Union, Local 1021, the Black Parallel School Board and Hmong Innovating Politics: solidarity works.

I return to Breton. His remark against teacher seniority does not add up.

Breton assumes what he fails to explain: how and why experienced teachers are weak, and what actors and factors weaken them for the poor students in their classrooms.

These are no academic debate points. We know that the seniority of SCUSD teachers, years of learning the craft of classroom instruction with kids from varied backgrounds, in part determines these workers’ pay.

Why is this so? Labor (SCTA) and management (SCUSD) collectively bargain seniority rights in contract talks.

Apparently, Breton views this contractual arrangement as shortchanging low-income students. By his reasoning, readers might expect a brief explanation of what makes teachers with much less experience, say recent university graduates with Teach for America, a group that gets funds from the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, so effective.

Readers deserve such information but Breton fails to deliver it. Instead, he uncritically repeats myths that defy reason, blaming experienced teachers for the socioeconomic fates of poor kids.

It is worth noting that education reform groups like Michelle Rhee’s StudentsFirst, headquartered in Sacramento, agree with Breton and Raymond’s sour view of teacher seniority. Apparently, the more time they have on the job weakens their skills.

Wait a minute. Who among us seeks out less experienced professionals for their services?

Who chooses to patronize inexperienced barbers, bus drivers, dentists, doctors, electricians, financial advisors, home health aides, nurses, painters, plumbers, roofers, and welders? When does a lack of experience qualify as an asset?

I dare say those who freely choose professionals with less versus more experience are in the minority. Am I wrong?

Why should parents of poor kids desire less experienced teachers as a public policy to strengthen their children’s achievement? All things equal, more time practicing an occupation improves one’s performance.

Broadly speaking, learning involves making mistakes, and learning from them under the tutelage of others. Teaching is a social process.

This process for classroom teachers takes four or five years to master, said Duane Campbell, an emeritus professor of bilingual education at Sacramento State University, who directs the Institute for Democracy and Education, in a C-SPAN 2014 award-winning video, “Protecting Public Education,” that Preeya Patel, Jacklyn Hughes, and Cherrish Hardy, juniors at Franklin High School in Elk Grove, Calif., produced. To watch their video, which in full disclosure features an interview with this journalist, visit: http://www.studentcam.org/winners14.htm

The view that “practice makes perfect” rings true in and out of the classroom. Of course, the ideal of perfection exists only as a dictionary word, and not an actual thing in the world.

By way of disclosure, my late mother was an SCTA member. She taught primary grade students in the SCUSD for decades, and a former first-grade student of hers helms the Sacramento Public Library Foundation now.

Education reform that targets teacher seniority occurs in a socioeconomic context, decades of policies that have redistributed income from labor to capital. Public school teachers with years of experience did not drive this policy trend.

Meanwhile in the pages of The Sacramento Bee, Breton supports the myth that inexperienced teachers are the solution to what ails kids attending low-income schools. His is a bid to weaken the status of teachers with seniority in the court of public opinion.

That court also opens to activist community groups in alliance with unions in opposition to the corporate agenda to reform public schools. All rise?

Seth Sandronsky is a Sacramento journalist and member of the freelancers unit of the Pacific Media Workers Guild. Email sethsandronsky@gmail.com