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L.A. to Lay Off Teachers, as Seniority Questions Mount

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Everyone is all a-twitter (ha!) over the Race to the Top Finalists. But there's another approaching phenomenon that has the potential to affect as many teachers as RTTT, if not more: Layoffs.

Exhibit A: Los Angeles has sent out pink slips to 5,200 teachers. Some of those jobs could be saved if the district and the union reach agreement on alternatives, like furloughs or salary cuts. But it looks likely that some teachers will get the axe.

Unsurprisingly, analysts are taking a closer look at last-hired, first-fired layoff policies. The National Council on Teacher Quality, anticipating a flurry of media stories on the issue, put out this primer a couple of weeks back. And here I will shamelessly plug my own story on the issue from 2009.

There are reasons to think that in California the layoffs will increasingly be viewed through a civil-rights lens. Because novice teachers and long-term substitutes tend to be disproportionately clustered in low-income schools, those schools stand to be decimated by cuts and the resulting forced placements. The American Civil Liberties Union is already beginning a lawsuit saying that LAUSD's cuts violate students in such schools' right to a quality public education.

Now the New Teacher Project steps into the fray with this survey showing that most teachers support consideration of additional factors in layoff decisions. The group surveyed over 9,000 teachers in two urban districts. About 74 percent of teachers in one of the districts supported using other factors. In the other district, 77 percent were on board with the idea. Not surprisingly, non-tenured teachers and those with fewer years of experience were the most inclined to support the use of other factors than veterans.

What's more interesting is the additional measures teachers said they'd like to see in layoffs. Classroom management techniques were the highest-listed factor in both districts, at 57 percent and 63 percent; in both districts more than half of teachers surveyed supported teacher attendance, and about half supported using evaluation ratings. Student performance was among the less-favored factors.

Survey results like this generally should be taken with a grain of salt because of the natural human tendency to support policies in the abstract, but not when they suddenly become more concrete, as in "I support clean energy but don't want my electricity bill to go up." It's one thing to agree in principle with other layoff criteria, but another entirely when your district starts using them and you're two years away from retirement.

Nevertheless, this is compelling evidence that even teachers don't find the current layoff procedures all that defensible. Changing that system will require teachers and districts to put their faith in new evaluation policies. That is a heavy lift indeed.

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