Ontario schools need accountability, not seniority

Posted on June 6, 2013 in Education Policy Context

TheStar.com – opinion/commentary – Ontario government provision requiring principals to hire for long-term positions based on seniority is a concern when younger teachers are facing an unemployment crisis.
Jun 06 2013.   By: Sachin Maharaj, Freelance Opinion writer

The Ontario government’s decision to change the way teachers are hired has caused school boards serious concern. The most recent changes, those that require boards to interview all candidates who meet minimum eligibility criteria, will require more time and resources in an era of tight budgets and cutbacks. But there is another change that should be of greater concern to the public: a provision requiring principals to hire for long-term assignments based on seniority.

What prompted these changes? According to Education Minister Liz Sandals, the changes are necessary to match the agreement the province reached with the Ontario English Catholic Teachers Association, which was the template used for all other teacher unions in the province. Why did OECTA demand this? Supposedly, it is to prevent nepotism in hiring. But is this even a serious problem in our schools? Beyond speculation from some teacher unions, there seems to be little actual evidence that nepotism is a systemic issue.

However, there is real evidence that there is an unemployment crisis among Ontario’s young teachers, which seniority-based hiring will only exacerbate. A 2012 survey from the Ontario College of Teachers found that 37 per cent of new teachers were completely unemployed, not able to find even a single day of supply teaching work. And only 14s per cent were able to secure a regular full-time teaching job. As one recent graduate from the GTA put it, “I doubt I will gain a teaching job for at least another three or four years.” Instead of trying to address an imaginary problem, seniority-based hiring will only make this actual problem much worse.

But even if the problem is that our schools are filled with teachers with personal connections as opposed to talent, the remedy lies in ensuring that we actually hire the best teachers, not those with the most seniority. How could we do this? By demanding accountability. It is only in an accountability vacuum that nepotism or suboptimal hiring decisions can exist. If principals were held accountable for the performance of those they hire, they would be more likely to ensure they select only the best teachers.

Once hired, principals should also be held responsible for retaining these teachers. Studies have shown that the students of the most effective teachers learn three times as much as those of the least effective, yet principals are often not held accountable for hiring and retaining them. A 2012 study of 90,000 teachers by The New Teacher Project found that fewer than half of top teachers received any positive feedback from their principals and only 37 per cent were encouraged by their principals to stay at their school. On the flip side, very few principals did anything significant to address their lowest performing teachers. The result was that most schools retained their highest performing and lowest performing teachers at very similar rates.

The study also documented the ways in which top teachers are shortchanged by seniority-based policies. These often result in top teachers getting paid less than their lower performing colleagues and make it impossible to keep them when layoffs occur. The result is that many top teachers leave their schools, school districts or the teaching profession. This is a tragedy for students. If we really care about providing our students with the best teachers, seniority-based policies should have no place in our schools.

So why did the government agree to these hiring changes? It was primarily to reward OECTA for agreeing to its other cost-saving measures. But while seniority-based policies make unions happy, they are not in the best interests of students. Telling principals they can only hire teachers with the most seniority discriminates against younger teachers. And given the dismal job market for new teachers, this makes no sense. It also undermines efforts to ensure we have the best teachers possible. If the government is serious about putting students first, accountability is where the solution lies.

Sachin Maharaj is a graduate student at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, University of Toronto and an assistant curriculum leader in the Toronto District School Board.

< http://www.thestar.com/opinion/commentary/2013/06/06/ontario_schools_need_accountability_not_seniority.html >

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