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A Victory for Students

Court Decision Protects Low-Income Schools from Seniority-Based Layoffs

SOURCE: AP/Reed Saxon

English teacher Nicholas Melvoin walks around his classroom as he teaches at Edwin Markham Middle School in the Watts district of South Los Angeles. Seniority-based teacher layoffs disproportionately affect schools such as those in South and Central Los Angeles because these high-poverty schools tend to have a higher proportion of novice teachers.

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Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge William Highberger approved a landmark settlement last Friday that would protect students in the highest-poverty schools from mass teacher layoffs. The Los Angeles decision was the result of a class-action lawsuit that civil rights attorneys with the American Civil Liberties Union and Public Counsel filed in February 2010 on behalf of students at three district middle schools. The attorneys argued that seniority-based layoffs had a disproportionate effect on poor and minority students since these schools have more novice teachers. Seniority-based layoffs are when schools dismiss the teachers that have the least experience within a school district first, without regard to their performance.

The ruling approved a settlement between the ACLU, the state, and the Los Angeles Unified School District that requires the district to completely protect 45 of the most vulnerable schools from layoffs. Seniority-based layoffs may be targeted to other schools in the district that would otherwise have fewer layoffs than average. This provision is intended to ensure that “any impact from preserving teacher positions at the targeted schools is fairly dispersed among other LAUSD schools that can more readily absorb turnover.” The ruling also calls for the district to provide support and resources to schools with high teacher turnover, including incentives to attract and retain educators at these schools.

This ruling is backed by a number of studies that have found that seniority-based layoffs disproportionately harm students in low-income schools. For example, a Los Angeles Times investigation in December found that when 2,700 teachers were laid off based on seniority “nearly one in 10 teachers in South Los Angeles schools was laid off, nearly twice the rate in other areas.” And some schools were debilitated: “sixteen schools lost at least a fourth of their teachers, all but one of them in South or Central Los Angeles.” Seniority-based layoffs disproportionately affect schools such as those in South and Central Los Angeles because these high-poverty schools tend to have a higher proportion of novice teachers.

Moreover, when seniority-based layoffs occur, highly effective teachers are frequently laid off, further harming students in these schools. The analysis by the LA Times found that in the case of Los Angeles, “about 190 ranked in the top fifth in raising scores and more than 400 ranked in the top 40%.” This is because a teacher’s experience in the classroom is only weakly related to his or her ability to teach. Similarly, Dan Goldhaber conducted a recent study of seniority-based teacher layoffs in Washington state and found that 36 percent of the teachers who received layoff notices were estimated to be more effective than the average teacher who did not receive a notice.

While teachers generally improve for their first few years on the job, this improvement tends to level out. And there is no evidence that a 10-year veteran is more effective than a teacher with three years of experience.

Schools that serve students in low-income communities already face a number of challenges in retaining an effective workforce. These schools tend to have fewer resources and serve students that face difficult circumstances at home and in their communities. It makes little sense to handicap these schools further by dismissing large proportions of their teaching staffs and dismissing some of their most capable teachers.

States and districts in recent years have begun to improve their ability to evaluate teachers’ performance and to link teachers to their students’ achievement. Now that these data are becoming readily available, districts should use multiple sources of information to make decisions about who to retain in the classroom when layoffs must be made. It makes little sense to make decisions solely based on teachers’ years of service and qualifications, when school districts have information about what we care about—a teacher’s success with students.

This court decision doesn’t go as far as mandating that teachers’ performance be considered in all layoff decisions but the decision is an important first step in reforming staffing policies in schools serving low-income students. While it is best if these policies can be worked out with teachers’ unions through the collective bargaining process as they were recently in the collective bargaining agreement in Washington, D.C., in this case the decision will prevent more students from being harmed in the near future.

It’s clear that seniority-based layoffs undermine the quality of the teaching workforce, particularly in high-poverty schools. And since the quality of teaching is so critical to students’ learning, it makes little sense to design policies that weaken rather than strengthen the teaching workforce. The Superior Court decision in Los Angeles is one step in the right direction. Hopefully other districts, in cooperation with teachers’ unions, will follow suit by rethinking their layoff policies to ensure that they protect their most effective teachers and their most vulnerable students.

Robin Chait is the Associate Director for Teacher Quality at American Progress.

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