Notes on the Seniority Smokescreen

Seniority, in the modern reformy lexicon, is among the dirtiest words. Senior teachers are not only ineffective and greedy and never put interests of the children over their own, but they are in fact downright evil, a persistent drain on state and local economies and a threat to our national security! By contrast, “effectiveness” is good and since seniority and effectiveness are presumed entirely unassociated, the simple solution is to replace any reference to seniority in current education policies with measures of “effectiveness.”

If only it was so simple. This modern reformy mantra grossly misinterprets the relationship between seniority and effectiveness, presumes currently available measures of effectiveness to be more useful than they really are at sorting “good” from “bad” teachers, ignores that the proposed solutions have in many cases been found NOT to solve the supposed problem, and is oblivious to the broader literature on teacher labor markets, compensation and the quality of the teaching workforce.

Seniority and Effectiveness

Numerous studies over time have shown that as teachers reach somewhere around their 5th year, student achievement gains under those teachers begin to grow more slowly and to an extent level off.[1]  These findings, to the extent we believe that these metrics of test score gain adequately represent teaching effectiveness, do not by any stretch of the imagination mean that more experienced teachers are less effective. Rather, their effectiveness increases from year to year level off. If they have indeed reached their optimal performance then it makes sense to continue to compensate senior teachers in order to retain them. A constant cycle of replacement costs money and costs in terms of lost effectiveness during the start-up years.[2]

Seniority and Fairness to Children

One argument is that seniority preferences in teaching assignments permit senior teachers to hold on to jobs in schools against their principals preferences and that these seniority privileges often lead to the neediest children having the least experienced teachers – as the more experienced teachers get the cushiest jobs in the district. On the one hand, this assertion acknowledges that new teachers, not senior ones, may in fact be the least effective. On the other hand, it’s simply not supported by research. Two separate studies, one on Seattle schools after implementing “mutual consent” hiring, and the other exploring Florida seniority contractual provisions have found that a) implementation of mutual consent initially exacerbated inequities across schools and ultimately led to no change[3] and b) that seniority provisions in contracts had no statistical relationship to inequitable distributions of teachers across schools and children.[4] Further, mutual consent hiring policies a) assume that central office decisions are necessarily bad and principals’ decisions necessarily good, b) they ignore that principal quality itself may be inequitably distributed and c) they ignore that central office is responsible for assigning principals.

Seniority and Layoffs

Another argument is that removing seniority preferences in cases of reduction in force (RIF) will necessarily lead to an improved teaching workforce as measured by student achievement outcomes. The argument is that seniority preferences must be replaced by “effectiveness” metrics that are predictably related to future effectiveness. First, such “effectiveness” measures are typically only available for core content classroom teachers between grades 3 and 8. In those relatively rare cases where Reduction in Force is actually implemented, the 20% of teachers for whom such metrics are available are least likely to be reduced and there typically exists significant latitude in deciding which programs and positions might be reduced first. Most reductions in force, which happen infrequently to begin with, chip away at other programs and services before ever approaching core subject area teachers.  Second, these effectiveness measures are wildly erratic and often substantially biased by who the teacher is teaching.[5]  In reality, these policies propose to replace seniority with a roll of the dice, or even a roll of rigged dice. Third, when implementing a 5% across the board cut, for example, effectively eliminating teachers at random by experience rather than eliminating only the newest teachers results only in nickels and dimes savings – certainly not enough to make even the smallest dent in the degree of persistent underfunding of Philadelphia schools, where debate on these policies is ongoing.[6]

While seniority is a seemingly arbitrary and imperfect measure for retaining teachers, replacing it with a roll of the dice is likely to have serious negative consequences for retaining high quality senior teachers and recruiting teachers into high need districts.

Bigger Picture Wage Issues

Most important to recruiting and retaining a quality teacher workforce in any given school district are a) the relative compensation and working conditions a teacher can expect throughout their career when compared with other career options in the same labor market and b) the relative compensation and working conditions a teacher can expect in one school or district versus another in the same labor market.[7]

Paying teachers competitively, offering good working conditions, including smaller class sizes and other resources, and providing job security are far more likely to produce the teaching workforce our children need.

[1] Rice, J. K. (2010). The Impact of Teacher Experience: Examining the Evidence and Policy Implications. Brief No. 11. National center for analysis of longitudinal data in education research.

[2] Ronfeldt, M., Loeb, S., & Wyckoff, J. (2013). How teacher turnover harms student achievement. American Educational Research Journal, 50(1), 4-36.

[4] Cohen-Vogel, L., & Feng, L. (2013). Seniority Provisions in Collective Bargaining Agreements and the “Teacher Quality Gap”. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis.

[5] see for example, Haertel, E. H. (2013). Reliability and Validity of Inferences about Teachers Based on Student Test Scores.

[7] Richard J. Murnane and Randall Olsen (1989) The effects of salaries and opportunity costs on length of state in teaching. Evidence from Michigan. Review of Economics and Statistics 71 (2) 347-352

David N. Figlio (1997) Teacher Salaries and Teacher Quality. Economics Letters 55 267-271. David N. Figlio (2002) Can Public Schools Buy Better-Qualified Teachers?” Industrial and Labor Relations Review 55, 686-699.

Ronald Ferguson (1991) Paying for Public Education: New Evidence on How and Why Money Matters. Harvard Journal on Legislation.  28 (2) 465-498.

Susanna Loeb and Marianne Page (2000) Examining the link between teacher wages and student outcomes: the importance of alternative labor market opportunities and non-pecuniary variation. Review of Economics and Statistics  82, 393-408.

Susanna Loeb and Marianne Page (19980 Examining the link between wages and quality in the teacher workforce. Department of Economics, University of California, Davis.

Figlio, D.N., Rueben, K. (2001) Tax Limits and the Qualifications of New Teachers. Journal of Public Economics. April, 49-71

Ondrich, J., Pas, E., Yinger, J. (2008) The Determinants of Teacher Attrition in Upstate New York. Public Finance Review 36 (1) 112-144



  1. Seniority (along with Tenure) gives the Teacher a feeling of security and “belonging”. With Seniority a Teacher becomes part of that community as well as the school. The Teacher has a concern for all students not just those currently in their classroom. Without Seniority a Teacher becomes a year to year employee dependent only on the outcomes of their students in the classroom!

  2. Seniority is mainly used within the schools to decide who should be in what position if both or all candidates have equal experience. And yes, who gets laid off. Having seniority and tenure enable a teacher to take risks and try innovative things to see if they can make for more student success. Tenure also allows teachers due process to fight against unfair evaluations and reprimands. There are still some really bad principals around who play favorites and do favors for teachers whom they like. Tenure is one of the only ways to counteract the bad principals. That and unions.

  3. Zeno’s arrow.

    Athletes get better and better – as they practice and improve – but then “level off”, too. If Ed reformers were athletic trainers/coaches, they’d probably give up on young people much too early.

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