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Editorial: Seniority and its discontents

Last Friday, the East Providence School Committee declared that it would seek to replace its district's existing seniority-based salaries with a system that financially rewards high job performance; the details would be determined through negotiations between parents, teachers, administrators, union officials and outside education experts. The teachers' union is balking at the potential disruption of the seniority system that rigidly guarantees predictable compensation for its members. But that predictability is already at risk. East Providence teachers have been working without a contract since October of last year and have had to take a five-percent pay cut and even heavier benefits reductions as the district struggles to make ends meet during the state's budget crisis. Unless the union opens up to compromise, the burden of these cuts will fall hardest on dedicated young teachers and the students who depend upon their instruction.

Pay scales and hiring priorities based first and foremost on seniority are a product of dark days for the teaching profession. In the middle of the last century, teachers across the United States suffered miserable pay and unjustified termination based on the whims and interests of administrators. Strikes and tough negotiations led by the American Federation of Teachers and its local affiliates eventually established seniority as the overriding pay and employment criterion across much of the country.

But this rubric has pitfalls of its own. Teachers' talents are as varied as the needs of their students, and a system that compensates instructors as if they were assembly-line workers does a disservice to the entire community. Simply put, students suffer when their teachers treat their job as a clock-punching routine. Most teachers don't, out of dedication to their profession, but seniority-first systems protect those who do and discourage the majority from doing their best in the classroom.

We strongly encourage the teachers of East Providence and their union representatives to cooperate in the negotiations over a new salary system. They can help guarantee that administrators' teacher assessments are balanced by using peer evaluations. And they can ensure that seniority, instead of being scrapped entirely, assumes its rightful role as one criterion among many. That way, teachers won't have to come to school knowing the official measure of their worth is the number of years they've spent in front of the blackboard, but they will know that those years of service won't be forgotten.

However the struggle over seniority across the Seekonk turns out, Brunonians should not turn a blind eye to the educational tribulations surrounding College Hill. This university connects us to countless programs that raise the quality of education in the greater Providence area and around the country. You can help young Rhodies to think critically and speak cogently in the Rhode Island Urban Debate League, or join the many Brown graduates who have spent two years teaching public school through Teach for America. Best of all, you can pursue a career in early public education. It sure isn't glamorous, but when it's done right it's some of the noblest work any of can hope to do.

Editorials are written by The Herald's editorial page board. Send comments to editorials (at) browndailyherald.com.




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