Guest Column

A Last Call for Quality-Blind Layoffs

by PHILIP S. CICERO

“It should not be illegal for schools to try to keep great teachers during tough economic times.”

Those words were published in a February policy report by the New Teacher Project that criticized school districts’ layoff practices dictated solely by seniority.

During my 11 years as a superintendent, the practical application of that policy was often unpleasant. I had the unenviable and unavoidable task of telling young up-and-comers that because of pending layoffs resulting from a struggling economy, they no longer would hold a teaching position in the district in the coming year. Most, of course, were stunned to receive this news and didn’t understand why. They had been working hard in their first year or two in one of our schools, had fulfilled their responsibilities and were instrumental in having their students achieve.

These teachers had the support of parents, students and colleagues. Evaluations conducted by their principals further confirmed their effectiveness. Yet none of their contributions seemed to matter. And they are right.

Our hands are tied by an archaic layoff rule that many school districts in this country must follow when faced with staff reductions. The rule begins and ends with seniority as the sole determinant in personnel decisions. Last-in, first-out, or LIFO, does not allow you to consider teacher effectiveness as a factor in making those decisions. In fact, LIFO often has the opposite effect by safeguarding ineffective teachers from quality-blind layoffs. The time has come to eliminate a practice that prevents administrators from keeping their best and most effective teachers in the classroom.

Hands Tied
Thirty-nine percent of teachers nationwide work in states where it is illegal for schools to consider factors other than length of service in layoff decisions. But concerns about traditional seniority policies are relatively new. In July 2009, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan hinted at his concerns over LIFO while addressing the National Education Association — the largest education association in the United States representing more than 3.2 million teachers. “We created seniority rules that protect teachers from arbitrary and capricious management, and that’s a good goal,” Duncan said. “But sometimes those rules place teachers in schools and communities where they won’t succeed, and that’s wrong.”

Former New York City schools Chancellor Joel Klein, in his final weekly letter to principals prior to his stepping down in 2010, called the last-hired-first-fired dictate unconscionable, noting that students need the best teachers, not those simply serving the longest.

Teacher seniority rules are being challenged in some places. In September 2009, Michelle Rhee, then-chancellor of the District of Columbia Public Schools, laid off approximately 400 teachers as a way of compensating for a shortfall in school funding. Rhee found language in an existing union contract that allowed her to consider “school needs” without regard to seniority as the determining factor in teacher layoffs.

Schools in poverty areas usually are hardest hit when teacher layoffs are driven by LIFO. In Los Angeles, newly hired, energetic teachers who had led their economically disadvantaged students to exceptional results were victims of quality-blind staff reductions. This sparked efforts to revise seniority rules in California, but they’ve gone nowhere because of strong opposition from the state’s teachers association.

However, in a decision reached earlier this year, a Los Angeles County Superior Court judge stuck to a tentative agreement that would allow the school district to apply seniority rules campus by campus. This would minimize the number of layoffs in high-risk schools that depend on teachers with fewer years of experience. Meanwhile, in Baltimore, the teachers’ union voted against a new contract that would have used the success of teachers in the classroom rather than seniority as a variable in determining pay.

Ironically, in a March 2010 policy brief, the New Teacher Project reported results from its survey of more than 9,000 teachers who overwhelmingly rejected quality-blind layoffs. Instead, teachers believed classroom management, instructional performance and teacher attendance should be considered in such decisions. And they’re right. All of those factors contribute to effectiveness.

False Notions
To move beyond the status quo, three assumptions need to be challenged. The first is that the most experienced teachers are the best ones. A body of research concludes that teachers in their third year of teaching are generally as effective as long-tenured teachers.

The second assumption is that advanced degrees help teachers to be more effective. Fifty years of education research has found little to no evidence to support this.

The third assumption is that low class size, generally considered between 18 and 22 students, makes a significant difference in student learning. Instead, the most important variable in the teaching-learning process is the effectiveness of the teacher, and research has shown that an effective teacher in a class of 21 students is still effective in a class of 25.

So we must challenge the use of a seniority/quality-blind system that serves the best interests of adults and not students. Some may believe that any effort to revamp seniority laws is sure to be fraught with political obstacles and self-serving rationales. Yet similar sentiments were raised when it was suggested teacher evaluations in New York, a state known to be supportive of labor and teachers’ unions, be linked to student achievement. And nevertheless, last spring, an agreement was reached between the State Education Department and statewide teachers’ unions to tie teacher evaluations, in part, to student achievement on state exams. The unions had fervently opposed this change for years.

With the prospect of more pink slips being handed out by districts to professional staff, the current fiscal crisis provides the perfect opportunity for school leaders to lobby for changes to amend seniority laws or collective bargaining agreements that adversely affect students. It is time to put longevity and seniority behind teacher effectiveness and student learning.

Philip Cicero, a retired superintendent, is an adjunct professor of education at Adelphi University. E-mail: pc828@optonline.net