In a previous post about seniority-based layoffs, I argued that, although seniority may not be the optimal primary factor upon which to base layoff decisions, we do not yet have an acceptable alternative in most places—one that would permit the “quality-based” layoffs that we often hear mentioned. In short, I am completely receptive to other layoff criteria, but insofar as new teacher evaluation systems are still in the design phase in most places, states and districts might want to think twice before chucking a longstanding criterion that has (at least some) evidence of validity before they have a workable replacement.
As first reported by the New York Times, the New York City Department of Education released a dataset this past Sunday, which lists the number of potential teacher layoffs that would occur in each school absent a budget infusion.
Layoffs are a terrible thing for schools and students, and this list is sobering. But the primary impetus for releasing for this dataset appears to be the city’s ongoing push to end so-called seniority-based layoffs, and its support for seniority-ending legislation that is now making its way through the state legislature. One of the big talking points on this issue has always been that layoffs that take experience into account would hurt high-poverty schools the most, because these schools tend to have the least experienced teachers. As I discussed in a prior post, Michelle Rhee is making this argument everywhere she goes, and it was one of the primary themes in a new report by the New Teacher Project (released last week). Although I have not heard city officials use the argument since the database was released over the weekend, similar assertions have very recently been made by Mayor Bloomberg, former Chancellor Joel Klein, and current Chancellor Cathie Black.
I find all this a bit curious, given that the best research on the topic finds that the argument is untrue (including a study of New York City, and a statewide analysis of Washington [also here]). Now, it is at least possible that, if layoffs were conducted strictly on the basis of seniority, higher-poverty schools could end up bearing the brunt of dismissals. This is almost never the case, however – layoffs in almost every district proceed based on a variety of criteria, among which seniority is only one (albeit often the most important).
It is fortuitous, then, that the city’s dataset provides an opportunity to test the claim that the “worst-case scenario” – over 4,500 layoffs using current New York City procedures – would hurt high-poverty schools the most. Let’s take a look.
On Wednesday, Michelle Rhee’s new organization, Students First, rolled out its first big policy campaign: It’s called “Save Great Teachers," and it is focused on ending so-called “seniority-based layoffs."
Rhee made several assertions at the initial press conference and in an accompanying op-ed in the Atlanta Constitution Journal (and one on CNN.com). At least three of these claims address the empirical research on teacher layoffs and quality. Two are false; the other is misleading. If history is any guide, she is certain to repeat these “findings” many times in the coming months.
As discussed in a previous post, I actually support the development of a better alternative to seniority-based layoffs, but I am concerned that the debate is proceeding as if we already have one (most places don't), and that there's quite a bit of outrage-inspiring misinformation flying around on this topic. So, in the interest of keeping the discussion honest, as well as highlighting a few issues that bear on the layoff debate generally, I do want to try and correct Rhee preemptively.
** Also posted here on “Valerie Strauss’ Answer Sheet” in the Washington Post
Eliminating seniority-based layoffs is a policy idea that is making the rounds these days, with proponents making special appeals to cash-strapped states and districts desperately looking for ways to save money while minimizing decreases in the quality of services. Mayors, editorial boards, and others have joined in the chorus.
There’s a few existing high-quality simulations that compare seniority-based layoffs with one alternative – laying off based on teachers’ value-added scores (most recently, one analysis of Washington State and another using data from New York City; both are worth reading). Unsurprisingly, the simulations show that the two policies would not lay off the same teachers, and that the seniority-based layoffs would save less money for the same number of dismissals (since the least experienced teachers are paid less). In addition, the teachers laid off based on seniority have lower average value-added scores than those laid off based on those value-added scores (as would inevitably be the case).
Based in part on these and other analyses, critics have a pretty solid argument on the surface: Seniority makes us “fire good teachers” simply because they don’t have enough experience, and we can fire fewer teachers if we use “quality” instead of seniority.
To be clear: I think that there is a sound case for exploring alternatives to seniority-based layoffs, but many of the recent arguments for so-called “quality-based” layoffs have been so simplistic and reactionary that they may actually serve to deter serious conversations about how to change these practices.