Should Teachers Be Laid Off By Seniority?

The Huffington Post–Richard Whitmire

The national debate on whether teacher layoffs should be done by seniority now focuses on New York City, where on Sunday the Department of Education released a worst-case list of layoffs — with the last hired at the top of the lists.

With the state senate set to vote on whether to allow layoffs based on issues such as teacher performance, the department wanted parents to know what could happen. Are the freshest-hired teachers on this list at their neighborhood schools really the ones you want to see disappear?

With federal stimulus money dried up, many school districts will have to lay off teachers. Nearly everywhere when this happens, the newest teachers, rather than the worst ones, lose their jobs. Political leaders would like to get rid of last-hired-first-fired policies so that the best teachers stay on the job, but that means taking on the unions, which can feel like political suicide.

That’s surely what it looked like in Washington, D.C., where former chancellor Michelle Rhee dared cross that line. She laid off 266 teachers in 2009 — for the most part the worst, not the newest — and that move was one of the biggest reasons former D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty got bounced from office and Rhee resigned as chancellor.

Does that mean mayors such as Michael Bloomberg should ignore their instincts on what’s best educationally? Not at all.

What happened to Rhee in Washington may have been a public-relations and political debacle, but as a policy decision, it was hugely successful. She got rid of some of the worst teachers and swapped in better ones, a strategy that I conclude accounts for most of the academic gains Rhee made there.

For once, education researchers are spot on: Effective teachers mean everything. Today, despite all the fallout, Rhee has no regrets about that decision. She’d do it again.

The Washington story started when Rhee got word that her budget had to shrink. Council members, to avoid teacher layoffs, decided Rhee should cut back her summer school program. But in D.C., where the mayor has control of the schools, it wasn’t up to the council to make that decision.

To Rhee, this was a classic showdown over the purpose of schools: employ adults or educate kids? Summer school was a powerful educational tool, whereas there was no reason to keep teachers who weren’t needed. Rhee restored the summer school budget and moved forward with layoffs.

Unencumbered by contracts or laws, Rhee had free rein to choose whom to let go. Some people lost their jobs not because they were bad teachers, but because they taught in underutilized schools or low-demand subjects. But Rhee made sure that the majority of the firings were based on effectiveness alone.

At that time, the district’s new teacher evaluation system wasn’t ready to identify weaker teachers, so Rhee asked her principals to make those decisions. She figured that they knew which teachers were least capable of helping their school make required academic gains — gains that were required if the principals were going to keep their jobs.

Rhee thought her plan was solid, but the execution was messy. Some teachers were escorted from their classroom and fired without given a reason. One of the 15 laid off at one high school was a popular guidance counselor who served on the executive board of the Washington Teachers Union. Protests there got so bad the police were called in.

The biggest morass came when Rhee gave an interview to Fast Company magazine, in which she revealed that some of the teachers laid off had hit kids and were sex abusers. She failed to say how many, leading Rhee critics to accuse her of painting all of the laid-off employees as thugs and deviants. Later, Rhee specified that one teacher was laid off due to sex abuse charges and five for corporal punishment reasons. But by then the damage to public opinion had been done.

Ultimately, the Fast Company fiasco proved to be a sideshow. Union officials — from not just teachers associations but also allies such as the AFL-CIO — focused street demonstrations on something more meaty: the upending of the comfortable tradition of seniority-based layoffs. As it turns out, their fears were justified. Today, politicians in several states are demanding an end to seniority-based layoffs.

These politicians sense a unique opening in public opinion. Parents instinctively understand what researchers already know. After roughly the fourth year of teaching, seniority has little effect on who’s good or not. Last-hired-first-fired policies mean that more expensive teachers stay on the payroll, even though they may not be any better than their newer colleagues.

National teachers union leaders seem to sense their vulnerability on this issue, but continue to defend it. “In no other profession is experience deemed a liability rather than an asset,” said Dennis Van Roekel, president of the National Education Association, the nation’s largest teachers union. Yes, but nobody is arguing that teachers get worse with experience, only that the best teachers aren’t always the most experienced.

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, argues that evaluation systems are too primitive to shift away from seniority-based layoffs. But if principals are held accountable for making progress at their schools, they have powerful motives for finding out which teachers are the most effective.

We haven’t heard any good defense from union officials of last-hired-first-fired — perhaps because there aren’t any. Nobody wants to see teacher layoffs, but if there’s no choice, and if you want to the best teachers on the job, you find a different way to allocate layoffs. For political protection against what Rhee experienced in Washington, districts should announce the grounds for layoffs well in advance.

For this to happen in many places, contracts and even laws have to be changed. It won’t be easy. But for students, it’s imperative.