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Ending Seniority-Based Layoffs: Silver Bullet?


Last-in, first-out policies have attracted enormous attention in recent years as economic conditions have necessitated teacher layoffs around the country. Should we let our newest teachers go, or should we use information about performance to decide who should be dismissed?

Dan Goldhaber wrote a guest post last week on EdWeek's blog Rick Hess Straight Up that describes the results of his recent study on the economic and learning impact of seniority-based layoffs, in which he empirically investigates a few common-sense arguments against seniority-based layoffs:

  • New teachers may not be the best, but they're hardly ever the worst teachers, and at this stage in their career they're probably improving rapidly

  • You have to lay off more new teachers to save the same amount of money, since more senior teachers earn more

  • Laying off the least-senior teachers disproportionately affects those who serve low-income and minority students, and those who work in high-needs subjects like science and special education

These last two points don't strictly apply in Seattle, where I work, but it's interesting to see these arguments tested empirically, using actual data on teachers who have recently received layoff notices. The first point—that seniority policies require us to lay off good new teachers while retaining less effective veteran teachers—continues to be a flashpoint for the public.

No one wants to see a dead-in-the-water veteran continue to draw a high salary while a promising new teacher is let go strictly because of seniority rules. It offends common sense, even among educators who are typically quite egalitarian by nature. To the average member of the voting public, it's deeply offensive to see seniority rules protect the incompetent while good new teachers are laid off.

But more than that, I'd argue that seniority-based layoffs prevent districts from becoming more efficient when economic times call for it. We have a very high bar for firing an educator for low performance, and as I've argued, we need to get better at firing the incompetent, to ensure that there is an effective teacher in every classroom.

But layoffs present a different opportunity and challenge—not to fire the egregiously bad, but to choose the more effective over the less-effective. Since layoffs are something that has to happen from time to time anyway, I would argue that layoff reform is a much more powerful way to improve school performance than other reforms to teacher evaluation, compensation, or career structure.

When businesses need to cut staff, they cut the weakest link. Who will it hurt us the least to lose? Who's not pulling their weight? Who's giving 99% when everyone else is giving 110%? This is a very different question from "Who is so incompetent that they need to be fired?" And the difference adds up to a substantial impact on the results we're able to achieve.

Goldhaber calculated that laying off new teachers rather than the least-effective has an impact equal to about 3 months of learning in the affected classes. I am not a fan of using value-added analysis to judge individual teachers, but it's a perfectly appropriate tool for making aggregate calculations like this one. One-third of a school year is no small impact.

Now, imagine that this happens every five years: when money gets tight, we can either trim the fat, or we can lay off and later re-hire our newest teachers. Which will improve our system over time? If you repeatedly lay off and re-hire new teachers, there's no impact, and you'll probably lose some good people to other districts, states, or professions. If you lay off based on effectiveness, those laid off will have to apply for jobs and make their way through the hiring process again to work as teachers.

If this happened every few years, we'd very rarely see teachers so bad they need to be fired, because the layoff process would solve the problem, and there would be a meaningful incentive to be very good. Despite Diane Ravitch's recent claim that tenure only ensures due process, not a job for life, anyone who's actually seen the termination process carried out knows that it's all about technicalities, not meaningful assessments of work quality.

If you have to lay off good teachers because you have no bad teachers to lay off, they're in no worse a situation than the new teachers that would have been laid off under a seniority-based system. Losing a job for any reason is never good for your résumé, but even if this isn't ideal for teachers, the downsides for adults are outweighed by the benefits for kids. If you have to lay someone off, age and experience should not be the only factors.

What would happen if districts said to their principals "This year, we need to lay off five social studies teachers across the district. Please send me a list of your social studies teachers and your recommendation for whether each should be retained or laid off." This could be followed by a review process and the ultimate laying off of the selected staff. This would eliminate the "dance of the lemons," in which schools cut programs, manipulate budgets, and play other tricks in order to force unwanted staff into the displaced teacher pool, contracts intact.

Obviously, we'd need some way to compare teachers apart from their principals' assessments, since these could vary for a variety of reasons. You could even leave the selection process entirely up to a committee of teachers, because the goal would be to identify and lay off the least effective, not prove any individual's incompetence. As I said above, this would work even when there are no bad teachers—if you're a 9 in a system of 10s, you should still be the one to go, and you'll likely do fine elsewhere.

The key issue is due process: when layoffs happen for budgetary reasons, you don't have to prove anything under a seniority-based system. When you fire someone for performance, you have to meet a litany of due-process requirements, including strict timelines for each step in the evaluation process. If states and districts can work with teachers' unions to create systems for performance-based layoffs, the process will serve kids, and will not be unfair to the adults in the system either.

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