Teaching Profession

Layoff Policies Could Diminish Teacher Reform

By Stephen Sawchuk — February 23, 2009 7 min read
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Donald Nicolas’ former principal was contrite when she came to his classroom last year to tell him that he was being let go. Despite his students’ high test scores, the Leon County, Fla., district’s staffing plan demanded reductions—and the principal had to pare nontenured teachers from the rolls first.

With the growing financial strain on districts putting more novices in Mr. Nicolas’ unenviable position, researchers and policymakers have begun to question the human-capital costs of “last hired, first fired” layoff policies.

Such layoffs, those experts argue, do not consider teacher effectiveness, meaning that teachers who make vital contributions to school success can nevertheless be among those to receive pink slips.

“There could have been better decisions,” contends Mr. Nicolas, who now teaches at the Imagine School at Evening Rose, a charter school in Tallahassee, Fla. “New teachers feel like they’re not protected.”

Seniority-based layoffs are the norm for the profession. According to a database maintained by the National Council on Teacher Quality, a Washington-based group that advocates stronger state teacher-quality policies, all but five of the nation’s 25 largest school districts follow seniority-based layoff policies set by contracts or state law. And all but one of those five is located in a right-to-work state without mandatory collective bargaining for teachers.

Typically, layoffs—frequently referred to in contracts as reductions in force, or RIFs—are enforced within teachers’ certification areas. If a district needs to cut high school social studies teachers, for instance, it cuts from the bottom of the high school social studies seniority list until the budget has been balanced. Then, it will redeploy the remaining teachers as necessary the following school year.

Teacher-quality experts have questioned the place of seniority in other personnel decisions, such as the pay and transfer of teachers, but layoff policies have attracted a lesser degree of scrutiny. In fact, some districts that now disallow seniority-based transfers, such as Rochester, N.Y., do not have a similar policy in place for layoffs.

“I think people assumed that revenue for schools could only go up, that the economy would never get so bad again that we’d have to have layoffs,” said Timothy Daly, the president of the New Teacher Project, a Washington-based nonprofit that trains new teachers and supports changes to districts’ personnel practices. “Nobody changed the rules or even talked about them since the 1980s. I honestly think the [poor economic] situation has caught people by surprise.”

A Costly Practice?

Since then, however, firm evidence has emerged to identify high-quality teaching as the single most important school-level factor for improving student achievement. Now, critics argue that seniority-based RIF policies not only fail to take teachers’ effectiveness into account, but they also necessitate the cutting of more teachers than seniority-neutral layoff policies, hurting both teachers and students in the process.

Using data from an urban district with a seniority-based layoff policy, Marguerite Roza, a research associate professor at the college of education at the University of Washington in Seattle, calculated that an overall cut of 9 percent to salary expenditures would force a cut of 13 percent of the workforce in that unnamed district, because of newer teachers’ lower salaries.

Teacher Donald Nicolas listens to a student at Imagine School at Evening Rose on Feb. 19 in Tallahassee, Fla.

Layoffs that cut deep into the ranks of novices, Ms. Roza said in an interview, also negatively affect those teachers who remained in schools by sticking them with larger class sizes and potentially forcing them to work in grades in which they may be certified, but have little actual experience.

“We’re moving teachers around and fragmenting the experience for the kids, and class sizes go up even more because we’re protecting seniority,” she said. “We’re not making a decision that’s in the best interest of kids.”

But alternatives to seniority-based layoffs have been tied up in the knotty question about how to evaluate teachers’ performance in a fair, uniform way, researchers and union officials say.

Many teachers and their unions, for instance, oppose using “value added” models that purport to estimate a teacher’s effect on student learning for high-stakes purposes. Alternative methods of evaluating teacher performance—including the peer-assistance and -review model used in Toledo, Ohio, and several other districts—aren’t yet widespread.

“We’re mindful of the fact that there are old issues that we have to address sooner rather than later, but at this point, seniority is the only fair way [of determining layoffs] because without an effective way of monitoring principals, we don’t know whether their selection process would be accurate,” said A.J. Duffy, the president of United Teachers Los Angeles, a merged affiliate of the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers that is bracing for layoffs this school year. “We are willing to discuss revamping the evaluation of teachers, if that is accompanied with a discussion on the evaluation process of administrators.”

Principals frequently lack the tools to make appropriate personnel decisions, added Robin Chait, a senior policy analyst at the Washington-based Center for American Progress, a Washington-based think tank, who co-wrote a recent article on seniority-based layoffs.

“In some ways, [seniority] might be easier for them,” she said. “Their hands are tied.”

Handful of Exceptions

A handful of district contracts with seniority-based RIF policies do grant exceptions to those rules under certain circumstances. In Philadelphia, layoffs must proceed by seniority unless doing so would throw off the racial balance of staff members in a school, for instance.

In Los Angeles, district officials can exempt teachers who fall into high-shortage subjects from layoffs. For instance, most new teachers hold certifications for teaching English-language learners within their credentials.

“We are looking into the matter to determine what if any effect certification will have on the seniority issue in laying people off,” said Mr. Duffy, who noted that about 1,000 veteran teachers lack the ELL endorsement.

Other districts and teachers’ unions have struck agreements to forgo contracted raises to keep all teachers on the payroll. Teachers in Montgomery County, Md., will not receive the 5.3 percent cost-of-living increase promised them under the current contract, but are now guaranteed to keep their current health benefits for several years, said Bonnie Cullison, the president of the Montgomery County Education Association, an NEA affiliate.

Ms. Cullison linked the decision to relinquish raises to the district’s peer-assistance and -review program that helps novices find their footing.

“The support we provide for our new educators is intensive,” she said. “We put a lot of investment in them, so if we’re losing them, the county is losing that investment.”

Fights Ahead

Although the recently completed federal economic-stimulus package could cushion the blow somewhat, its state-stabilization fund authorizes a number of activities, such as school modernization, that could compete with keeping teachers on board. As a result, the the extent to which the current fiscal crisis could force districts to consider revisiting layoff policies remains unknown.

Hard-hit districts could take advantage of contract clauses allowing them to reopen bargaining in times of hardship, much as Montgomery County officials did last year. But that is an unnerving prospect for some teachers.

“I’m strongly in favor [of renegotiating contracts] so when the next recession comes, we don’t have this same mess,” said John E. Thompson, a 10th grade history teacher at Centennial High School in Oklahoma City and a frequent commentator on education policy blogs, in an interview. “But I have a feeling that renegotiating seniority for this recession would not be a smart move. ... [Teachers] would have a very fair complaint: ‘They changed the rules on me.’ ”

Such conflicts will likely be inescapable in other venues, such as in New York City, where Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg announced plans to cut 15,000 teachers.

Joel I. Klein, the district’s superintendent, said in a recent television interview with ABC News in New York City that cuts should first be made to the pool of teachers who have been “excessed,” or removed from their schools but kept on the city payroll, rather than from among the ranks of new teachers the city has aggressively recruited through Teach For America and other alternative-route programs. (“‘Teacher Gap’ Shrinking in N.Y.C.,” June 16, 2008.)

In contrast, Randi Weingarten, the head of the United Federation of Teachers, advocates voluntary buyouts and a hiring freeze to minimize layoffs. That plan would likely require the city to use excessed teachers for any open positions.

In Tallahassee, Mr. Nicolas is free of immediate fears for his job. His charter school is actually hiring for next year, and its personnel decisions in any case are based on performance rather than seniority. But he worries about his former colleagues who still teach in nonchartered district schools, where officials have warned about additional cuts.

“I don’t know if it’s the union’s responsibility or the district’s to look at [layoff policies],” he said, “but I just think there has to be a better way.”

Coverage of policy efforts to improve the teaching profession is supported by a grant from the Joyce Foundation.
A version of this article appeared in the February 25, 2009 edition of Education Week as Layoff Policies Could Diminish Teacher Reform

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