Updated: This story was updated with new information provided by TNTP and Educators for Excellence.
A long-established policy meant to protect veteran teachers from layoffs could be crashing up against the impetus districts have put on hiring a more diverse teaching force as the potential for another round of teacher layoffs in the coming months looms large.
A report released this month by the education nonprofits TNTP and Educators for Excellence takes a closer look at “last in, first out” layoff policies that are based on seniority. Those policies have historically been supported by teachers’ unions, which say that seniority is a transparent and objective standard.
But teachers of color, on average, turn over at higher rates than white teachers. That means they’re more likely to be in their first years of teaching, and therefore more likely to be laid off under these policies.
“Sometimes we go to the easiest solution even if it’s not the best solution for students,” said Tequilla Brownie, the chief executive officer of TNTP. "[Seniority] is not the one thing that correlates with teachers being most effective. ... A more diverse teacher workforce correlates with better student outcomes.”
TNTP and Educators for Excellence requested data on teacher demographics and experience from all 50 states and the District of Columbia. They received data back from 39 states and the nation’s capital.
Nationally, teachers of color are nearly 50 percent more likely to be in their first or second year than white teachers, the report says. In several states—including Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New York, and Washington, and Iowa—teachers of color are twice as likely to be novices than that national average.
That means states are making progress in recruiting more teachers of color, who only comprise 20 percent of the workforce. Research shows that teachers of color are linked to positive academic, social-emotional, and behavioral outcomes for all students, but especially students of color.
But teacher layoffs in the near future are a grimly realistic possibility, Brownie said, pointing to declining student enrollment, a potential recession, and the looming expiration of pandemic relief funds.
“Districts, frankly, are already being hit by the declining student enrollment, but they’re able to bridge the gap with their ESSER dollars,” she said. “Once those dollars go away, you’ll see the full impact—both of those dollars going away themselves as well as the extent they were already mitigating the declines in student enrollment. It could have a pretty drastic effect on teacher layoffs.”
During the Great Recession of 2008, districts slashed an estimated 120,000 teaching positions. In 2020, as a result of school shutdowns and pandemic uncertainty, thousands of educators received pink slips, although many were later rehired.
Many of those who were laid off during the early days of the pandemic were Black and brown teachers who had been hired during pushes for more diversity and equity. Even award-winning teachers, such Qorsho Hassan, the 2020 Minnesota Teacher of the Year who is Somali-American, lost their jobs.
As Karen Lewis, a Black kindergarten teacher who was laid off from the Schenectady, N.Y., school district in September 2020, told Education Week at the time, “the potential was just, in a day, gone.”
Here is each state’s layoff policy
Twelve states require some form of seniority-based criteria when making decisions about which teachers to lay off, according to the TNTP and Educators for Excellence analysis. Another 20 states leave the decision to individual school districts.
Many districts include “last in, first out” in their collective bargaining agreements: Out of the 148 largest urban districts in the country, 46 still use seniority as the sole or primary factor when determining layoffs, according to the National Council on Teacher Quality.
But in recent years, some states and districts have made changes to their layoff policies to reflect the need to retain teachers of color. For example:
- In 2021, Oregon passed a law that kept the emphasis on seniority, except for teachers who have “cultural or linguistic expertise.”
- The 2021-23 teacher contract for the Minneapolis school district says that certain teachers are exempted from the “last in, first out” policy, including members of populations underrepresented among licensed teachers in the district, alumni of historically Black colleges and universities and tribal colleges, and those who graduated from the district’s “grow your own” program. (Teachers of color are more likely to enter teaching through such alternative programs.)
- In 2021, the Madison, Wis., school board voted to change the criteria for layoffs. Instead of basing decisions solely on seniority, layoff determinations are now based on five factors: culturally responsive practices, student learning outcomes, foreign language fluency, advanced degrees, and seniority. (The local union opposed these changes.) Culturally responsive practices are defined by the district as understanding what leads to inequitable outcomes for students of color and adapting instruction to meet the needs of all students.
Also, Nevada considers whether teachers are in hard-to-staff positions or schools during layoffs, and both Michigan and the District of Columbia factor in teachers’ unique skills or contributions to the school. That could include formal activities, like club leadership or athletic coaching, but it could also include informal work that teachers of color are often tasked with, such as translation services or managing student discipline, noted Evan Stone, the co-CEO of Educators for Excellence.
Pending legislationin the Massachusetts statehouse would reduce the state’s focus on seniority. Instead, it would require districts to consider whether a teacher has proficiency in a language or dialect other than English that’s spoken by 5 percent or more of the students or parents at the teacher’s school; whether the teacher is a member of a population underrepresented among certified teachers in the district; whether the teacher graduated from a “grow your own” program; or whether the teacher works in a hard-to-staff school or subject, alongside other criteria.
Stone said he’s hopeful that more states and districts will consider adjusting their policies to make seniority one factor, but not the only factor. He’s had early conversations with advocacy groups in California, New York, and Texas about making those states’ blanket policies more flexible.
Brownie said she hopes more districts partner with their local unions to develop criteria that fits their local context and pilot new policies.
“It gives the ability to demonstrate that the sky doesn’t fall when you try looking at other variables that do matter,” she said. “It is about having a better impact for students—those are the stakes.”