The Cost of Seniority in Teacher Layoffs

Posted 28 December 2010 by

A study just released by the Univ. of Washington-based Center for Education Data & Research says that students pay a heavy price when teachers are laid off based on seniority, rather than on other measures of teacher effectiveness.  The study looked at 1,717 teachers across the State of Washington who received layoff notices over the prior two years.  (A last-minute injection of federal stimulus funds allowed most to retain their jobs, but with that source of funds tapped out, layoffs — and the “seniority problem” – could become more ”real” this year.)

Researchers compared the actual layoff notice list with a list of teachers who would have been laid off using a measurement of effectiveness known as “value-added,” in which teachers are judged by the improvement of their students on standardized tests.  (The model considers how much students improve, rather than the absolute level of scores, and is therefore considered more fair to teachers whose students arrive in their class already behind.) 

The researchers then estimated how two different hypothetical school systems would perform.  In the first, teachers who received notices based on seniority actually lost their jobs, and their students had to be taught by teachers who remained.  In the second case, 1,300 of the lowest-performing teachers were fired instead, with their students taught by the teachers who remained.  (Only about 275 teachers were on both lists — in other words, they were both low-seniority and low-performing.)

The researchers found that student achievement under the seniority-based layoff scenario would drop by an estimated 2.5 to 3.5 months of learning per student, when compared to laying off the least effective teachers in the second scenario.  And there were additional negative impacts.  Schools in poorer areas, which are often staffed by newer teachers (higher-seniority teachers having used their seniority to move to ”better” schools), had disproportionately higher turnover under the seniority-based scenario.  And turnover among Special Education teachers was also higher than it would have been under merit-based layoffs.

Not surprisingly, teacher union officials strongly disagreed with the conclusions of the study, challenging the use of value-added models to judge teacher effectiveness, because that approach depends too much on student test scores.  However, teacher unions have been reluctant to endorse alternative qualitative models that could be used to rank teachers and therefore prioritize them for layoffs.  Teacher unions would prefer no layoffs at all, of course, but they have been remarkably silent on what other criteria might be used to prioritize layoffs with the least harm to students.  That silence has left them defending the status quo — teacher retention based on seniority.

The ACLU seems to agree with the general conclusions of the CEDR study.  In a suit filed against the Los Angeles Unified School District in early 2010, the ACLU’s Southern California office maintains that the District’s seniority-based layoffs resulted in the dismissal of so many new teachers in low-income schools that it exacerbated existing turnover challenges, essentially denying students in those schools a fair and adequate education.

If your own school district faced a teacher layoff, do you think the district would be able to retain its best teachers?  Or would they use other criteria that put students first?  Do you think that any choice-based educational institution would retain seniority-based firing and assignment of teachers?  Click on the link below to download the full 50-page study.

CEDR 12-22-10 Study of Teacher Seniority, Effectiveness & Layoffs

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4 Responses to The Cost of Seniority in Teacher Layoffs

  1. I’d have to agree with you one this subject. Which is not something I usually do! I really like reading a post that will make people think. Also, thanks for allowing me to speak my mind!

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