I’ve been catching up on education news today, after enjoying the holidays in my snowy hometown.
I came across two stories from last week that made me wonder how school districts will proceed with layoffs after the federal stimulus funds dry up (a cheery thought for the New Year).
One was an AP story about a study by the University of Washington’s Center for Education Data & Research. Researchers concluded that seniority-based layoff policies were likely to have negative consequences for students.
In the report, they compared two hypothetical scenarios: In the first, 1,717 (mostly junior) teachers in Washington state who received pink slips in 2008-09 lost their jobs. In the second, teachers with the lowest effectiveness ratings were let go instead. (Some teachers appeared on both lists.) The researchers projected that after the seniority-based layoffs, Washington students would fall 2.5- to 3.5 months behind where they would be if the lowest-rated teachers were removed, AP reported.
Researchers also noted that seniority-based systems lead to the layoffs of more teachers than would be necessary if effectiveness was considered. Since the salaries of newer teachers are significantly below average, school districts need to lay off more of them to reach a certain level of savings, the center found.
But the report acknowledges the volatility of the “value-added” method, which rates a teacher’s effectiveness based on the progress her students make during the course of a school year. Those year-to-year rating swings can be stabilized by averaging multiple years of data, but that’s not possible with newer teachers — those who are most likely to receive pink slips in the seniority-based system.
A footnote on page 29 explains that the method is limited, particularly for new teachers, but it looks like they received ratings in this report anyway.
Speaking of layoffs, experience and instability: The LA Times ran a story about a low-performing school in Watts that lost more than half of its teachers — mostly, newbies — in a 2009 round of seniority-based layoffs. The more experienced teachers who replaced them happened to have higher effectiveness ratings, the Times reported. That year, the struggling Markham Middle School (which had undergone just about every popular reform possible) finally started showing academic progress:
(Principal) Sullivan’s first year was focused on restoring order, and test scores actually fell. That summer the school suffered what appeared to be another grievous blow: More than half of the teachers were laid off, based on their low seniority, and many were replaced by more experienced instructors from around the district.
Undaunted, Sullivan and his largely new team of teachers tried many of the reforms that had been attempted before at Markham: reopening the parents’ center, breaking the school into smaller learning groups and continuing intensive teacher training.
This time, the results were different: Markham had the fastest rate of student progress among district middle schools last year, The Times’ analysis found.
Apparently, the layoffs had an upside. Many of the replacement teachers Sullivan picked from the district’s hiring pool proved more effective than their predecessors.
Twenty-one teachers who were laid off in 2009 ranked, on average, in the bottom fifth among district teachers in raising students’ English scores and in the bottom third in boosting math scores. They were replaced by teachers whose effectiveness was close to average in both subjects.
In addition, many of the low-performing teachers who survived the layoffs got significantly better, jumping to near average effectiveness compared to their peers districtwide.
But then layoffs struck again this year, the Times reported, and Sullivan — the ninth principal in 20 years — split. So no happy ending for Markham, at least yet.
Layoffs in OUSD: Oakland Unified has moved teachers from school to school for budget reasons, but the district has avoided a general layoff of tenured K-12 teachers in recent years, partly because of its high teacher attrition rate. (The dismissal of new teachers without tenure, known as “non re-election,” is a separate issue that is not necessarily tied to the budget.) Who knows what this year will bring.
What do you think about the Center for Education Data & Research findings? The report raised some interesting economic and staffing issues associated with seniority policies. On the flip side, if seniority protections were removed, I wonder if school districts would be permitted to target the highest-paid employees, regardless of their perceived effectiveness, to minimize the number of necessary layoffs.
Some of the researchers at a UC Berkeley forum this fall had serious concerns about the reliability and accuracy of “value-added” ratings. But some said the model had potential for identifying the extremes — the most effective and least effective teachers in a given school system.
Do you think the layoff rules should — or will — be revised in your district? How would you rewrite them?