Which teachers should be rehired and which dismissed when a school needs to trim its faculty because of declining enrollments and reduced revenues? Good teachers should be kept and poor teachers fired, seems the obvious answer. But to this merit principle must be added the recognition of two conflicting factors which also need consideration. Both have some legal backing.
One factor is the view that the decision should be made on the basis of seniority, or length of service. This principle has been written into many teacher contracts.
The other is the view that affirmative action in behalf of equalizing employment opportunities for minorities should not be reversed. This principle exists in the form of federal and state edict in many places.
Certainly long experience can make a teacher too valuable to dismiss. No administrator wants to toss out a teacher whose loyalty to the system is unquestioned or whose prior service has been confirmed by annual reappointments for many years. Nor can a humane administrator ignore the personal hardships which displacement might cause one nearing retirement or with diminished opportunities for employment elsewhere.
On the other hand, long service in the school system does not automatically guarantee that a teacher is effective. Such a teacher may be present every day and have lesson plans for every unit he intends to teach--and he may have been using the same plans for the past twenty years. Even when such a teacher's position is protected by a seniority clause in a contract, an administrator should use every means at his command, including the necessity for layoffs, to induce such a teacher to improve his teaching style.
The affirmative action issue has been highly politicized, but underlying it is the increasing recognition that not only minority students, but majority students, too, need minority teachers.
Minority students need role models to whom they can relate. Racial affinity is not the only basis for relating to a teacher, but it must be a comfort and reassurance, as well as a scholastic incentive, to a child to see within a school someone whom he can imagine himself becoming. And, where there are children of diverse racial, cultural, and linguistic backgrounds, this means there must be teachers of diverse racial, cultural, and linguistic backgrounds.
As for the value to majority students of having minority teachers, I often think about the impact on my subsequent experience of Mr. Butler, a black student teacher who taught American history one semester in my high school. Frankly, in the small town where I lived, I had never met a scholarly black person before. This teacher's presence forced me to correct the stereotypes about blacks I had unthinkingly acquired prior to this time and caused me in subsequent years to work on various committees for interracial harmony, all in the years prior to the civil rights legislation.
Since the ''Brown v. the Board of Education'' desegregation decision in 1954 and the civil rights legislation of the 1960's, many public school students have encountered teachers of diverse backgrounds.
The problem with the ''last hired, first hired'' demand of teachers' unions is that in many school systems, the ''last hired'' are blacks, Hispanics, and other minorities. True, in some cases this ''affirmative action'' by government edict resulted in the hasty hiring of under-qualified teachers.
If, to preserve diversity, less qualified ''affirmative action'' teachers are retained, then they must become qualified through in-service training, the help of their better-qualified colleagues, and summer or graduate study. The prospect of unemployment can be used as an administrative device to insist that the standard of teaching be raised and that orderly educational procedures, where neglected, be adopted.
For reasons which are more political than rational, the ideal reduction in force is hard to accomplish. If pruning of faculties is imperative in view of declining enrollments and reduced revenues, let it be done in such a way that students get teachers who are experienced and wise and teachers who are enthusiastic and innovative and teachers of diverse backgrounds. For students learn from what teachers are more than they learn from what teachers say.