Last Wednesday, Superintendent for Providence Public Schools Tom Brady handed down some good news. In the coming academic year, six schools in his district will abandon the practice known as "bumping," in which teaching vacancies are filled in order of seniority. The year after that, the entire school district will follow suit. After the old single-criterion system ends, principals will select replacement candidates based on a thorough evaluation of their skills and their compatibility with the empty position.
Providence schoolchildren have demonstrated minimal academic progress in recent years, and bumping is one of many culprits. Currently, when a teaching slot opens up, the teacher with the most years in the system is able to take it, regardless of his talent or experience in teaching that curriculum or grade level. And if a senior teacher's position is eliminated, he can dislodge one of his junior colleagues, leading to an uneven learning experience for the affected students. Under the coming system, principals will instead choose new members of their staff based on interviews, letters of recommendation and their students' work. Teachers are dedicated professionals with varying sets of skills that don't correspond neatly to the number of years they have spent in the profession. They ought to be treated accordingly.
The teachers' union has long relied upon the rigid rules of seniority to ensure that all its members can make a decent living, and its leaders are understandably worried about arbitrary hiring that might leave dedicated educators out in the cold. But the bottom line isn't job security, it's the quality of the instruction that Providence schoolchildren receive. Downgrading the significance of seniority will make teaching in Providence more financially risky, but it will also pressure teachers to be creative and assiduous, and make them more likely to end up in the classrooms where they can do the most good.
Union officials are threatening to sue the district over the new policy. That would be an enormous mistake. Rhode Island teachers are not currently under contract — they are merely abiding by the terms that formally expired two years ago. That means that any lawsuit their union might file would be not only wrongheaded but virtually doomed — a waste of their money and the resources of the schools to which they have dedicated their lives. Instead of suing, the union should work with the district to revise a fair set of standards for teacher hiring. By the fall of 2010, bumping will be history in Providence, and teachers should embrace the new process as a boon to their profession and their students.
Editorials are written by The Herald's editorial page board. Send comments to email@example.com.