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Charlotte, N.C. Gave Principals Power Over Teacher Layoffs. What Happened?

Following the Great Recession, the wave of teacher layoffs gave birth to a seething debate: Should teacher layoffs be based on inverse seniority (as is usually the case in state law and/or contracts), or based more heavily on other factors, like teacher performance? 

Now, a new research paper is the first to examine the topic using actual layoff data, in this case from the Charlotte-Mecklenburg district in North Carolina.

In 2009 and 2010, when faced with a budget shortfall, the Charlotte district gave principals a lot of discretion on how they reduced the teaching force. (North Carolina is one of just five states where public-sector collective bargaining is illegal, and so administrators generally have more flexibility with layoffs.) So how did they go about making those decisions?

As it turns out, layoffs still tended to be concentrated among teachers with four or fewer years of seniority. Nevertheless, principals also targeted less-effective teachers across all levels of seniority. And when that happened, student achievement benefited, according to the studyto be published in the fall issue of Education Finance and Policy.

Author Matthew A. Kraft of Brown University examined data on teachers working in Charlotte in the 2008-09 and 2009-10 school years, and then analyzed it to determine which characteristics were most likely to lead a teacher to be laid off. The data included information on seniority, whether teachers were retired, and their licensure type. He also looked at principals' ratings of teachers on the statewide evaluation system. He supplemented that with his own value-added measure of teacher performance. 

Who got laid off? 

  • 84 percent of laid-off teachers were probationary teachers. Principals, in interviews, said they didn't see the point of terminating tenured teachers since state law gives them "recall rights" for future open positions.
  • Teachers with more than 30 years of experience, particularly those who were "double dipping" with pensions, were more likely to be let go.
  • On the whole, though, teachers who were laid off were rated about a third of standard deviation less effective by their principals than teachers who were spared. The lowest-rated teachers were targeted for layoffs among all levels of seniority, and 58 percent of teachers who receievd a "below standard" rating on any evaluation category were let go.
  • Unlicensed and late-hired teachers were also more likely to be laid off.
  • High school teachers were more likely than elementary and middle school teachers to be laid off, with foreign language and arts teachers the most likely to be cut.
  • The cuts were distributed evenly across schools and were only weakly correlated to student demographics and performance. (Compare and contrast with Los Angeles, where low-income schools were decimated in 2010 by layoffs, which eventually led to a lawsuit.)

What were the effects of those layoffs?

First off, Kraft found that teacher seniority didn't seem to have much relationship to how students went on to do in the following year. But laying off a more effective teacher did decrease student achievement in math the next year, compared to laying off a less-effective teacher. (Pretty common sense.) 

Kraft also examined alternative scenarios for layoffs, finding that if the district had conducted them based on seniority, it would have had to cut about 160 additional teachers. 

If you read this blog with any regularity, you know that layoff policy has been a topic of hot debate. Proponents of change say that it only makes sense to let go of the worst teachers first. Teachers' unions have generally defended the seniority policies, fearing that changes might lead to decisions based on favoritism, and put the most senior (and highest-paid) teachers on the chopping block.

As it turns out, the district took a middle-of-the road approach: The very costliest (double-dipping) teachers were indeed let go, but mostly the layoffs were concentrated among novices and, importantly, the very weakest teachers. And that saved jobs overall in the district.

"CMS principals appear to have considered multiple teacher characteristics rather than defaulting to an inverse-seniority process or targeting the highest paid teachers as some have claimed would happen," Kraft writes in the study.

Still, he concludes, the predictive power of the performance measures suggests that they should be included into layoff decisions, with some flexibility.

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