"Quality-Blind" Teacher Layoffs Leave Students Behind
Choosing Seniority Over Effectiveness Hurts Both Students and District Budgets

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: FEBRUARY 3, 2011

As education budgets across the nation contract in response to the recent financial crisis, many school districts have been forced to lay off a sizeable number of teachers. This raises two important questions: what determines which teachers will be let go, and does the existing policy offer the best for the students?

Legislators in the state of Washington recently introduced a bill (SB 5399), sponsored by State Senator Rodney Tom, which would require the use of teacher evaluations in layoff decisions. Yet as a result of collective bargaining agreements in the heavily-unionized teaching industry, most school systems take a seniority-based approach to layoff decisions, adopting a "last in, first out" strategy. First-year teachers are over twice as likely to be let go as their colleagues with 4-6 years of experience, and senior teachers face almost no risk of being laid off. A recent study by Dan Goldhaber and the Center for Education Data & Research (CEDR) at the University of Washington-Bothell--a study which has already influenced the legislation proposed in Washington state--demonstrates that this "quality-blind" approach short-changes both students and district budgets.

Using data from recent teacher layoffs in Washington State, Goldhaber simulates an alternative system which bases layoff decisions on value-added estimates of teacher effectiveness rather than seniority. His findings are striking:

  • 36% of the teachers in Goldhaber's sample who actually received layoff notices were estimated to be more effective than the average teacher whose job was not at risk, implying that there is a lot of room for making informed effectiveness-based decisions.
  • Under the current seniority-based system, students lose about 2 to 4 months' worth of learning in the year following layoffs; retaining highly effective teachers would preserve that learning.
  • Seniority-driven systems have a disproportionate effect on various student sub-groups, with African-American students far more likely to be in a classroom with a teacher who receives a layoff notice than white students.
  • A system relying on teacher effectiveness would result in 10% fewer jobs lost. Because senior teachers collect higher salaries than their junior counterparts, a seniority-based system necessitates that more teachers will need to be laid off to meet the district's budget targets. In Goldhaber's sample, teachers who were cut earned roughly $14,000 less per year than the teachers who were retained.

While the study notes that seniority is not the only factor considered in layoff decisions, it clearly indicates that experience is weighted too heavily relative to effectiveness. As Goldhaber notes, "it's hard to argue that a seniority-driven system is best if student achievement is your bottom line."

The study is available online at http://www.aei.org/paper/100188.

Dan Goldhaber is the director of the Center for Education Data & Research and a professor in interdisciplinary arts and sciences at the University of Washington Bothell. He can be contacted through Emily Batman, manager of AEI's National Research Initiative, at emily.batman@aei.org or 202-862-5826. For additional media inquiries please contact Sara Huneke at sara.huneke@aei.org (202.862.4870).

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