Treacherous transfer policies

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The New Teacher Project (TNTP) has released Unintended Consequences: The Case for Reforming the Staffing Rules in Urban Teachers Unions, providing important evidence of how seniority rights in urban districts frequently trump the needs of schools. Gaining unprecedented access to five large urban school districts, TNTP concludes that "40 percent of all school vacancies were filled by incumbent teachers over whom schools had little or no choice in hiring."

The report puts some hard numbers on current transfer and excess rules in large urban districts:

* Two thirds of districts' principals surveyed for the study said that they had to hire teachers they would not have otherwise hired.

* Nearly one half of the principals admitted to hiding vacancies in their schools in order to avoid hiring voluntary transfers and excess teachers.

* Poorly performing teachers are transferred from school to school instead of simply being fired. Almost 40% of principals in New York and 25% in San Diego admitted to encouraging a poorly performing teacher to transfer or to placing one on an excess list.

* Out of a total of 70,000 tenured teachers in the five districts, only four were terminated for poor performance over the course of one year.

* Novice teachers are treated as expendable as they are too often the first to be excessed if a senior teacher wants their job; 23% of New York City principals report having at least one novice teacher bumped from their school last year.

* Almost all of the new teachers hired in these five districts (ranging from 67 to 93 percent) were hired less than a month before the start of the school year because of the slow transfer process.

Citing the importance of teacher quality in closing the achievement gap, former superintendent of San Diego Unified School District, Alan Bersin stated that "The reality is that staffing rules in urban contracts restrict our ability to do what we really need to do to raise teacher quality: attract and hire promising candidates, keep great teachers, and match teachers with students' needs."

Reg Weaver, president of the National Education Association, called the report "another smoke screen to blame so-called union rules for our society's lack of commitment to all children."

American Federation of Teachers Executive Vice President Antonia Cortese said that the report completely "misses the mark on the challenge of retaining new teachers in urban schools...we need to spend more time on retention strategies like peer mentoring and other supports, and less on human resource management issues, like how the districts are managing teacher transfers."

The districts studied included New York City and San Diego and three districts choosing to remain anonymous.