For anyone who has been involved in the collective bargaining process for a teachers’ contract, they are fully aware of the scope and extent of contractual language concerning work rules. Areas such as hiring, layoffs, class size, preparation time, duties, professional days, to cite some examples, are commonly defined and circumscribed by the terms of a contract. While boards of education frequently focus on economic issues when negotiating collective bargaining agreements, there is increasing research on the impact of “work rules” on the ability of school districts to improve student outcomes.

For example, there are now a number of studies that address the impact of teacher transfer language on the distribution of teachers within a school district, and the resulting disparities between the quality and experience of teachers serving schools with high and low numbers of minority students.

The empirical basis for these teacher transfer studies is based on other studies which have consistently identified significant disparities in teacher quality between schools with large and small minority populations, with schools with a high proportion of minority students characterized by teaching staffs with less experienced and less capable teachers. For these studies examining the impact of teacher transfer rules, they rely on teacher experience as a gauge of teacher quality, based on research which indicates that teachers grow in effectiveness during their first few years on the job.

A working paper released April 2014 examined teacher transfer rates in Washington state school districts. According to this paper for the Center for Education Data and Research, by Dan Goldhaber, Lesley Lavery and Roddy Theobald, in Washington classrooms, “virtually every measure of teacher quality – experience, licensure exam score, and value-added estimates of effectiveness – is inequitably distributed across every indicator of student disadvantage….” In a companion paper, Mr. Goldhaber found that the probability that a teacher voluntarily transfers out of a school with many disadvantaged students is particularly high in districts with strong seniority transfer language.

Similarly, a 2006 paper by Terry Moe, states that this one set of rules (seniority protections in teacher transfer contract language], “significantly effects the way quality teachers get distributed across a district’s schools – and in doing so, magnifies the problems of disadvantaged schools by increasing the numbers of low-quality teachers they are burdened with.”

Another researcher, William Koski, argues that contractual language concerning the rights of teachers versus the rights of the district to assign teachers can have an impact beyond the actual words found in a contract. “The specific strength of the language doesn’t matter as much as the impressions and the culture that grow up around the language.” Koski adds, “almost irrespective of the language, there is a cultural component here, where administrators are simply giving senior teachers the best jobs because they don’t want to lose them, or they’re afraid of the teacher filing a grievance.”

The findings of these and other papers illustrate the possible unintended consequences on student achievement of language contained in collective bargaining agreements that protects or favors union employees. As noted by Moe, “rules that may seem on the surface to be totally benign, intended to simply give teachers more latitude in their choice of jobs, turn out to have major consequences for the way education’s most valuable resource gets allocated across schools.”

Boards of education are well advised to consider the potential impact of teacher contractual language on the ability of their school districts to address student and educational concerns when negotiating revisions to collective bargaining agreements. As suggested by these studies, a failure to do so may have the effect of restricting a school district’s ability to respond to student needs.