The Lost Year: How Seniority Harms Teachers and Kids

OCTOBER 29, 2013 | by PRIYA ABRAHAM

Rep. Vanessa Brown (D-Phila.) knows what it's like to lose a good school teacher. For her son, it was nearly a matter of life and death.

For years, Brown has had to fight for a good education for her son, who has special needs. Learning was always a struggle—until the second grade.  Then one day he came home and told his surprised mother that he loved school.

The reason?  Mr. Hammond. The dynamic new teacher was creative, and knew how to connect with Brown’s son. In one year the boy moved up three grades.

By the time Brown’s son reached ninth grade, massive teacher layoffs began in Philadelphia city schools. Mr. Hammond was laid off simply because he was young and didn't have enough seniority to keep his job according to teacher union rules and state law.  His excellent results with students like Brown’s son didn't even come into play.

The older teacher who replaced Mr. Hammond, according to Brown, interpreted every learning obstacle that the boy had as a disciplinary problem. The teacher often consigned him to a corner of the classroom with a laptop and instructions to work through modules on his own.

Brown’s son grew frustrated, and started acting out. Without Mr. Hammond to advocate for him, he didn't even get the accommodations he needed to take the SAT, and so failed the test. He missed out on an opportunity to go to college, and that was the beginning of a "long, dark" depression, Brown says.

She calls it the lost year.

Were it not for Brown watching her son, thoughts of suicide might have overwhelmed him. Brown has seen how a good teacher can turn around a child's life. That's why she's co-sponsoring HB 1722, which would retain teachers in the classroom based on their performance, not on how young they are or how little time they've served.

Rep. Brown is not alone in her experience. She just happens to be a legislator who’s gone through what many families and teachers have endured. Just ask Dominique, who took a job at one of Philadelphia’s most challenging turnaround high schools, only to see her young colleagues—including one who had won a city distinguished teaching award—laid off. Or parent Nina Liou, who saw a great teacher bumped from her children’s school.

As Philadelphia schools sink under a longstanding budget battle, the district must find ways to provide a quality education. Seniority rules to the exclusion of performance hurt good teachers, and they especially hurt children like Brown’s son. No more Pennsylvania children should lose the life-changing teachers they need.

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