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Shooting Yourself in the Foot

Mid-Year Layoffs Undermine Teacher Quality

SOURCE: AP/Tina Fineberg

New teachers, like these picking up literature during an orientation for teachers entering the New York City public school system, are often the first to be laid off.

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Each week brings new headlines about the symptoms of economic recession. One of these symptoms, mid-year layoffs of teachers, is particularly troubling. The past few months have seen layoffs announced in Los Angeles, Memphis, and Dallas. Mid-year layoffs tend to happen when state tax revenues fall below anticipated levels.

Education funding is the single largest expense in most state budgets and therefore cannot escape the economic pinch. Data released by the National Governors Association and the National Association of State Budget Officers shows that together, 31 states “face existing fiscal 2009 budget gaps totaling $30 billion.” Education Week reports a 9 percent cut to education funding in Alabama, and major, imminent cuts to education budgets in New York, California, and Virginia. We haven’t seen the last of mid-year layoffs. Indeed, many more are projected in school districts from California to Massachusetts to Florida.

Mid-year layoffs create obvious hardships and turmoil. The laid-off teachers are left in the lurch, classes are consolidated, discretionary programs are cut, and teachers’ relationships with students are severed. Nobody argues that students’ experiences in school are enriched by such events, and it would be nice to avoid mid-year layoffs altogether for these reasons alone. Yet there is another compelling reason to dread mid-year layoffs: They may undermine the quality of the teacher workforce, both immediately and going forward. The reasons have to do with which teachers are laid off and what signals the selection procedure sends to future teachers.

When a school district announces mid-year layoffs, there is little doubt about which teachers will get the axe. It’s an exercise in “last-hired, first-fired.” For instance, none of the 2,300 teachers that Los Angeles Unified School District anticipates laying off will have been in the district long enough to earn tenure—a coveted employment status almost entirely separated from serious notions of quality teaching. Mid-year layoffs can actually cut into the ranks of tenured teachers in districts with less turnover and fewer non-tenured teachers, but teachers’ contracts generally ensure that seniority, measured by length of service, is the chief criterion used in reducing staffing levels. In other words, teacher quality—in terms of the ability to foster learning—never enters the picture.

Since teacher quality is the most important school-based determinant of students’ academic progress, it’s important to consider how mid-year layoffs affect it. In the short run, it’s not terribly clear what the result is. On the one hand, teachers with only one or two years of experience tend to be less effective than their more experienced colleagues, so dismissing some part of the former group may actually improve the average level of skill of teachers in a district.

On the other hand, dismissing the least experienced teachers may have a negative effect on average teacher quality. Some of the most energetic and positive teachers are those with very little experience. For example, Teach for America corps members, who are carefully selected for academic skill and commitment to working in high-poverty schools, have been shown to be at least as effective as more experienced teachers. And what about teachers who are new to their current employer but have documented records of success elsewhere? They are just as vulnerable to being laid off as hapless rookies.

The immediate effects of mid-year layoffs on the overall quality of a district’s teaching force depends on the prevalence of particularly capable novices and highly effective veterans who lack tenure. But the result of layoffs depends on the remaining veterans’ ability to cope with larger classes even in schools where the teachers vulnerable to layoffs tend to be less effective.

Mid-year layoffs are most insidious and clear when we look further out. The way the layoffs are handled sends the signal that when push comes to shove, what really matters is seniority. These signals will make it harder for districts to attract the kind of teachers they will seek in the future—energetic, committed, and effective teachers who want to be rewarded for their hard work rather than the amount of time they have spent in a position. High-profile insults to the role of teacher quality in decisions about layoffs are most unfortunate as school districts strive to become strategic by aligning personnel practices and desired results.

It would clearly be ideal for school districts to have financial contingency reserves that would allow them to get through the year with the staffing pattern envisioned in September. This is a tall order in the short term, but a possible priority for states and districts once this recession has ended. Districts and states can do everything in their power in the short term to ensure that the least effective teachers are the ones let go. Despite being saddled with personnel systems driven by tenure policies and seniority, there have to be some ways to maintain a high-quality teaching staff even during mid-year layoffs. For example, early retirement incentives may be a ticket to keeping energetic, effective teachers with low-seniority in the classroom.

What’s more, there are now mountains of student achievement data linked to teachers—something that didn’t exist during the last epidemic of mid-year layoffs in the early 1990s. Efforts to bring this data to bear on questions about teacher quality should be redoubled, especially when sorting out which teachers are chronically ineffective teachers.

Mid-year layoffs highlight the inadequacies of the current human resource systems for teachers and the need to strengthen the teacher tenure process. Districts should work to ensure that only effective teachers get tenure. When layoffs are necessary and tenured teachers are protected, at least then we would know that the teachers who are retained have met a meaningful standard of effectiveness. Mid-year teacher layoffs are never a good thing, but they do remind us of inadequacies in our teacher policies and create some urgency for reform. Hopefully states and districts will use the current crisis as an impetus to revisit tenure policies to ensure that all students have access to effective teachers.

More on teacher quality:

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