Is “High Morale” Always Good? For Whom? The Case of the LA Teachers.

I try to avoid even the appearance of being political on this blog, but I can’t resist telling you about what I read a couple of days ago and how it made me think about the subject here. Living in southern California I often read the “local rag”, the Los Angeles Times, and one morning recently there was a front page article about how the LA public school teachers had been forced by a court to give up some of the protection of their union contract and to accept that in the future, in some of the LA public schools (but not all), layoffs would no longer be based on seniority only. Anyone who knows that city and its teachers union (UTLA-United Teachers Los Angeles), knows that this is far, far from what they would have wanted, in fact something which they did fight tooth and nail against…..and lost.

Seniority is the basis of many union contracts, not just in the US but also in Europe and elsewhere. It is based on a reasonable premise: that those who have invested their careers somewhere should have some protection, especially if they are older and close to retirement, etc. The arguments in its favor are significant, when looked at on face value. However, there is a downside, and it is a big one: when layoffs occur based on only seniority, young, enthusiastic, often recently minted teachers, with all the new ideas which come from recent college courses and all the high morale and engagement which derive from not having had time to become jaded…and just from being young….these people are GONE! Left behind are those who have been there the longest, whose morale is lower simply because of the opposite effect of what I have described above (as if by gravity over time, morale sinks over the years, until right before retirement, then takes a leap as people realize, “another year and I’m FREE!”). Firing teachers under the LA (or nearly any teachers’) contract is difficult, to say the least, whether for a layoff or any other reason.  This means that less than competent individuals, those who have retired on the job years ago but still show up in the classroom every day, those whose students’ performance in math and reading had barely budged under their tutelage…those people are often not removed after the relatively short period of time which runs before they receive “tenure”. 

So this is the basic dilemma, and it’s a difficult one: protecting older, more “senior” teachers, regardless of their performance, or doing something radically different and basing layoffs on performance only. What does the latter strategy achieve? It achieves something remarkable, something which the parents of some children in the LA schools woke up to and acted upon: laying off teachers based on performance puts the children first and not the teachers!

Yes that’s right, for all these years the teachers’ contract has been geared…surprise!….overwhelmingly towards the teachers, not the kids.  This has protected those teachers who cannot perform now and perhaps have never performed that well. It’s a revolution…but should not be…to suggest that the children being educated should be front and center. Its also a strong legal argument, especially when put forward in a civil rights context, and that is what happened in Los Angeles: the parents of children in poor performing schools essentially said to the court “we believe that laying off based on seniority is leaving us only with the longest tenured teachers, not the best ones, and as a result has deprived our children of the best teaching available to them”. The judge agreed and with a stroke of the pen, changed the system for many of the LA schools. Of course, the union was furious at having this “agreement” forced on them and vowed to appeal; it was quoted as saying that this will “demoralize” the longer-tenure teachers, since they will no longer be in a totally 100% secure job regardless of how they perform (try getting that deal in a normal enterprise!)

“Demoralize”:  I almost fell off my chair with the mis-use of this word. Yes the teachers will be upset at the loss of this deal, one which has been in place for decades and which is still in place throughout the US (although under attack for all the reasons we have discussed here in many other states). But “demoralized”? The people who are demoralized are the kids who are getting a sub-standard education from teachers whose continued employment by the LA Unified School District has only to do with the possession of a pulse, and nothing to do with their performance for those students.  Besides, think of what this move away from senority-based employment will do for the great performing teachers:  it will totally “re-moralize” them, the opposite effect of what decades of seniority-based employment practices have done.

I am not anti-union.  I grew up in England and studied management and business psychology in the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution, Manchester.  I know about the gruesome conditions which workers endured and the way the unions grew to protect people from this explotation.  Under the best of conditions in the private sector, there is usually a balance of power between unions and management;  but in the public sector we have the additional need to consider the “customers” being served by government entities, whose interests are sometimes far from front and center.   In this case the balance has been far too much in favor of the teachers and their union, and not on the children being educated, and the court is redressing that.  Indeed the situation is so serious that the court agreed that seniority-based practices actually deprived some children of their civil rights….and to top it all off the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), long the scourge of right wing rhetoric and usually painted as a loyal friend of the left, including unions, filed in favor of this lawsuit and the kids.

I feel for any teacher who is laid off in this difficult California financial climate.  But they have had a good ride, for decades. They have had bulletproof employment regardless of performance, fantastic (and far more generous than private sector) pensions. They have done very well. Now is the time for the students to benefit from this system, not just the teachers. This legal case is the first crack in the dyke which will bring the flood of better education to the children of Los Angeles….and hopefully elsewhere.  Listen to the mayor of New York, Michael Bloomberg, as quoted in the same LA Times article:

“This year, if we are forced to lay off teachers, we will be forced to lay off some of the most effective, and keep some of the least effective……It’s not right. It’s not fair. And it’s not something we can allow to happen.”

This story is just beginning.  As with many things in the US, California often leads the way.  Maybe children in our public schools can look foward to their morale, and their performance, being raised as a result? 

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