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Education Opinion

The Hidden Costs of Teacher Layoffs

By Guest Blogger — November 19, 2015 5 min read
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Note: This week, Katharine Strunk, Associate Professor of Education and Policy in the Rossier School of Education and the Price School of Public Policy at the University of Southern California, joins us as guest-blogger. Today’s piece is coauthored with Dan Goldhaber, director of the National Center for Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education Research at American Institutes for Research and director of the Center for Education Data and Research at the University of Washington.

Today Dan Goldhaber joins me to revisit the layoff process and the impacts of layoffs on students and teachers. (See the other RHSU post Dan and I wrote about this here.) We focus on layoffs connected to the Great Recession, which resulted in more educator layoffs than at any other time in recent history (an estimated 170,000 to 240,000). In the vast majority of districts, teachers are let go in reverse order of seniority. A strict adherence to this “Last-in-First-Out” (LIFO) takes no account of teacher effectiveness or other important characteristics.

LIFO layoffs have obvious implications for students. Research based on simulations and layoff data in New York, Washington, and Charlotte Mecklenburg show that more high quality teachers are laid off under LIFO than would occur if layoffs were based on measures of performance.

Everyone agrees that layoffs are terrible. Good teachers lose their jobs. Class sizes go up. Students pay the price. But it turns out that it doesn’t stop there. With our colleagues David Knight (University of Texas, El Paso) and Nate Brown (University of Washington), we have now examined some of the less explored, more indirect impacts of LIFO layoffs on teachers and students. Our two new studies (see here and here) show that the direct impacts of what happens because laid off teachers are removed from schools is only the tip of the iceberg.

Using data from the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) and Washington State, we find that the layoff process itself has effects beyond just determining which teachers are laid off (and the associated consequences for student achievement). Although the timing of the layoff process varies across states and, in Washington, across districts, the layoff process is similar in both contexts. It begins early in the spring semester, when teachers first receive notification—usually by way of a Reduction-in-Force (RIF) notice - that they are at risk of being let go. In California, RIF notices must be sent out by March 15th. In Washington teachers can become aware that they are at risk as early as January. Then, later in the spring semester (by May 15th in California), a portion of RIFed teachers receive official layoff notices. So, for at least two months of the school year, teachers face substantial uncertainty about whether they will have a job the following year. Over the summer and early fall, some subset of laid off teachers are offered their jobs back, and those who have not found alternate employment return to the district.

Why is this employment limbo so drawn out? Well, few states settle their budgets by March and many haven’t gelled by May. So districts, awaiting the details about their education funding, are still in the dark about their fiscal outlook come spring and forced to tell every teacher who might lose their job under various budget scenarios that their jobs are at risk.

This drawn out layoff process spells stress for teachers. If teachers spend much of the school year worried about job security, it stands to reason that their teaching might be affected. And if they don’t know if their jobs will exist the following year, who could blame them for spending some time hunting for alternative jobs instead of preparing for classes? Even if they get their jobs back, the stress of not knowing could take a toll.

LIFO also requires teachers to be let go in reverse order of seniority in the district, regardless of which schools laid off teachers are employed. This tends to mean that there is more churn in disadvantaged schools as these schools are staffed with more junior teachers. It also means that districts must reshuffle some of the remaining teachers who are not laid off, reallocating them across schools to balance staffing.

Our research on teacher mobility under LIFO-based layoffs found that the receipt and eventual rescission of RIF notices causes teachers to exit their schools at higher rates than they would absent the layoff process. This increased teacher churn stems from both reshuffling teachers across schools to fill vacancies and increasing their unemployment risk. This churn will likely harm students; research tells us that students in schools with high rates of teacher turnover perform less well on standardized tests and, it would stand to reason, also face other challenges that come with instability within their school.

As for the impact of the layoff process on teacher effectiveness (as measured by teachers’ value added to student achievement)? In LAUSD, teachers laid off and hired back to teach in the next school year have significantly lower value added in their return year than they had in years unthreatened by layoffs. In Washington, teachers who receive a RIF and then are not let go are less effective in the year they receive the RIF notice. Put simply, teaching is worse in the face of the potential of a layoff—troubling even if not shocking.

Our research tells a grim story: layoffs harm teachers and students in subtle and potentially more harmful ways than simply removing good teachers from schools would. We believe policymakers need to figure out a better way to lay off teachers when budget constraints dictate it—one that entails the least possible harm to students. And just because the economy is recovering does not mean that we should wait to determine a new solution; every year, districts across the country are forced to lay off teachers due to budget constraints or unexpected changes in enrollment. Layoffs are never welcome, but we should learn from the unfortunate experiment of the Great Recession how to structure layoffs in a way that does not add unnecessary harm to students.

--Katharine Strunk and Dan Goldhaber

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.