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Posted at 7:00 AM ET, 02/ 9/2011

Eliminating seniority-based layoffs: 4 things to consider

By Valerie Strauss

The following was written by Matthew Di Carlo, senior fellow at the non-profit Albert Shanker Institute, located in Washington, D.C. This post originally appeared on the institute’s blog.

By Matthew Di Carlo
Eliminating seniority-based layoffs of teachers is a policy idea 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.

The first issue is that critics of seniority-based layoffs often conflate the need to cut costs and the need to get rid of incompetent teachers. This is a distraction. Districts must address the problem of incompetent teachers, whether or not they are in budget crisis. Similarly, districts in budget crisis need to figure out how to deal with it, whether or not they have incompetent teachers. These are separate issues, and we should be careful not to let one drive the other.

The second (and more practical) source of confusion pertains to how current seniority-based layoffs actually work. In reality, they rarely proceed strictly by seniority. Although there are variations from place to place, there is usually a formula of sorts, which accounts for subject area licensure, special skills, location, and other factors, in addition to experience.

For example, the aforementioned Washington State simulation (which used actual layoff notices issued [but repealed] in 2008-09) found that experience was the strongest predictor of being laid off, but there were also strong effects associated with having an advanced degree and being certified in a high-needs subject. In fact, about one in three teachers who would have been dismissed under seniority were in their third year or higher, while over 10 percent had five or more years of experience. In other words, termination decisions were made according to multiple criteria (though they tended to be based on need).

So, those who rail against seniority-based policies – using oversimplified characterizations such as “last in, first out” – sometimes appear rather out of touch with the reality of how these policies actually work, and how much they vary by location. The public (and perhaps some policymakers as well) may not be aware of these details, and we should be clear about the current situation before deciding whether and how to change it.

Third, all of the outrage against seniority seems way overblown. It has for decades been considered a fair and impartial way of proceeding, in both the public as well as private sectors (though it is far more common in the former, and among unionized employees in both sectors).

In education, this policy also has some research backing: Even by the narrow measure of student test score growth, experience is among the few proven signals of teaching quality (see here, here, here, here, or our summary here), to say nothing of the possibility that experience matters more when it comes to other student learning outcomes (including, by the way, reducing attrition; experienced teachers are less likely to leave the profession).

In short, seniority is definitely imperfect, but it is hardly outrageous to use it as a proxy for quality. There is a reason why districts have long agreed to use it in layoffs and other decisions, and why virtually every nation in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development uses it in determining teacher pay. Let’s cool it with the “seniority hurts kids” rhetoric.

(Side note: In both the New York and Washington simulations, seniority-based layoffs did not affect higher-poverty schools more than “quality-based” terminations, as some previous analyses have found, with much fanfare.)

The fourth and final issue with the anti-seniority uproar is probably the most important for policy purposes: The implication that there is a better alternative that is willfully being overlooked.

Most critics simply attack the existing policies without specifying a replacement, which is really the most important element here. New evaluation systems would seem a viable option, but in most places, this work is still very much in progress. Completing it should be our focus, rather than rushing to eliminate seniority before we have a solid method with which to replace it. Until we do, any unqualified argument that we should select based on "quality" amounts to little more than a talking point.

I have not yet heard anyone state publicly that we should conduct layoffs based solely on value-added scores, but assuming these people exist, their policy preference raises a few important questions and issues that bear on the debate.

First off, and most obviously, one has to wonder how they plan to account for the fact that the vast majority of teachers do not get these scores (i.e., they teach untested grades/ subjects). How are they to be selected?

But let’s say we did it – we chose who to lay off based on value-added estimates alone. Putting aside all issues of fairness and applicability, the achievement benefits are not quite as grand as you may have heard. The estimates from growth models, due mostly to random error and measurement error, are highly unstable over time. This means that the teachers who are “saved” from being laid off by a “quality-based” policy (i.e., they would have been laid off under a seniority system) will be a fraction as effective in future years compared with the initial layoff year (and, even in the initial year, many teachers will be fired and retained erroneously).

For example, in the aforementioned New York simulation, the teachers who would have been fired based on seniority (but were retained in the layoff based on value-added) were only about one-third as effective (relative to their fired colleagues) two years after the simulated layoff (though the difference was still significant). Even if you accept the estimates at face value, the achievement payoff declines rapidly over time because the measure is subject to high degrees of error.

This suggests an obvious point, but always an important one: The idea of "quality-based" layoffs sounds great in an editorial, but, in practice, measuring "quality" is tenuous even when you predefine it (e.g., in terms of value-added). Note also that, even in the initial year, the simulations show that layoffs would have to be rather large to have any appreciable effect on overall student achievement (though some layoffs may in fact be large, and many individual students would be affected either way).

Then there are the savings, which is, lately, the big selling point of this policy. While it is true that “quality-based” layoffs would result in fewer dismissals to achieve the same level of budget cuts, one must, as Bruce Baker points out, put these "savings" in proper perspective. Even if we could terminate, say, 10-15 percent fewer teachers using value-added instead of seniority (as was the case in the Washington simulation), this doesn't save money per se (typically, you have to cut a certain amount), it only saves teachers. The benefits might show up, for example, in outcomes such as class size.

From that perspective, it is noteworthy that, as is the case with achievement, seniority-based layoffs would have to be rather large to have an appreciable overall effect on class size, relative to "quality-based" layoffs (though, once again, many individual students and classrooms would affected). Of course, every little bit helps (especially if you're one of the teachers who might be fired or one of the students who might have had a smaller class), but the idea of using “quality-based” layoffs as a means to solving budget gaps is unrealistic and misleading. I would also reiterate that, in my view, layoff policies are serious educational decisions, and any budgetary implications should be viewed as entirely secondary.

So, again – I fully support exploring alternatives to seniority-based layoffs. I'm far from certain that they are the best option, and the idea of laying off based on more nuanced, multidimensional measures is clearly preferable (to whatever degree layoffs are ever preferable).

But the case against seniority is misleading and overstated, while its alternatives remain unclear and their benefits sometimes exaggerated. The goal of this particular debate – finding the least destructive way to conduct layoffs – is one we all share, but using simplistic, misleading arguments to stir up outrage is counterproductive, and it risks pressuring states and districts into hasty, ill-considered policy decisions. Let’s also keep our eye on the ball here: Better measures of teacher quality that will yield benefits regardless of the fiscal environment.


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By Valerie Strauss  | February 9, 2011; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Guest Bloggers, Matthew Di Carlo, Teachers  | Tags:  seniority-based layoffs, teacher layoffs, value-added, value-added formulas, value-added methods  
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Sometimes it seems like idiots run all our institutions. The Fed stands accused of falling asleep at the wheel of regulation, letting the economy crash. Homeland Security and TSA...there HAS to be some German phrase that sums up their deadpan style of ineptness. The military hasn't scored any comprehensive victory in over 65 years. And so on.

Certainly the schools have taken their lumps. In part, it is because we so often compare poorly to other developed countries - but that is true in measures of all sorts of stuff from happiness to health, so education isn't special in that regard. It's simply not efficient to have so much standard setting, law making and crime enforcement going in fifty different directions, as our system of state government dictates.

But, also, progress in the schools is hindered by some common false assumptions. These include:
A) it is possible to measure progress at a fairly granular level
B) the schools have declined when graduation rates have actually peaked and essentially held
C) all students are capable of absorbing a decent education at a cost we can afford
D) academic education is the key to personal and societal success (tell that to the Saudi king; 44% of his unemployed are college grads)
E) colleges provide generally sound, useful, and high quality instruction

Posted by: johncs99 | February 9, 2011 8:00 AM | Report abuse

There are times when teachers just burn out. The idea they can plow through the remainder of their career just floating downstream serves no one but the teacher and the union.

Suppose we changed to a program much like the pro sports groups. Draft a better teacher or bring in a better teacher from another league (city, state, etc.) The players have a union and sports programs get by changing those folks around.

I agree, we need to invest some research in another way. John has some valid points, but the Saudi King has more than half the unemployed without higher academic skills.

Posted by: jbeeler | February 9, 2011 9:43 AM | Report abuse

Experienced teachers are the best, in general. They know what works and what doesn't and know which battles to pick.

The whole emphasis on teacher evaluation is mistaken. Principals or supervisors should be circulating and know what is going on in their buildings.

Teachers are being demonized by the press these days. Why?

Posted by: georgia198305 | February 9, 2011 10:06 AM | Report abuse

As a former teacher, I agree with Di Carlo that abandoning layoffs based on seniority in favor of those based on "quality" is rife with problems.

First, as Di Carlo pointed out, "quality" is hard to define for our teachers: Is it raising one group of students' test scores one year? Over multiple years? What if your subject isn't tested? Does it matter if the teacher adds value to the school by coaching or other extracurricular activity(e.g., is the teacher the soccer coach or drama director)?

Teacher effectiveness can be influenced by the students, subject, administrators and other variables. If Teacher X has a high value-added score teaching gifted students, but is switched the following year to a remedial course-load by her principal, and has low value-added scores after one year with the new group of students, is Teacher X effective or ineffective? Should she be fired, or simply moved back to the gifted classes?

These are all real-world issues that complicate the desire to quickly label teachers as ineffective or effective and make firing decisions based on that label. Although seniority has some of its own problems, it remains a reliable and consistent method to handle reductions in force for teachers.

Posted by: AttorneyDC | February 9, 2011 10:10 AM | Report abuse

The discussion about seniority seems to have devolved into an expressed belief that young teachers are superior to older teachers, which is bringing us dangerously close to age discrimination. Should districts actually succumb to this stereotype and lay off a higher proportion of experienced teachers (thus saving more money), I see a rash of law suits. It's interesting that this article appears on the same page as the article about DC owing millions in back-pay to teachers who were arbitrarily fired by Rhee. Engaging in age discrimination could cost districts a lot of money in the long run.

Posted by: pattipeg1 | February 9, 2011 10:30 AM | Report abuse

Pattipeg1: Good point!

Posted by: AttorneyDC | February 9, 2011 11:53 AM | Report abuse

How is always firing the youngest not age discrimination?

Posted by: someguy100 | February 9, 2011 12:49 PM | Report abuse

@someguy100--It's not firing based on age. It's last hired, first fired. Thus a second career teacher, who could be in their 40's or 50's, may be fired because they were last hired. There's a difference.

Posted by: musiclady | February 9, 2011 1:01 PM | Report abuse

I think those who want to elimate seniority based layoffs, need to be laid off themselves. They need to take the poison they are forcing on others themselves.

Posted by: jlp19 | February 9, 2011 5:25 PM | Report abuse

"Should districts actually succumb to this stereotype and lay off a higher proportion of experienced teachers (thus saving more money), I see a rash of law suits. "

I do, too. I am always amazed at how rarely this is pointed out. (For the record, I am a second career teacher with no seniority, so would probably be kept just to establish non-discrimination).

The fact is, senior teachers cost more, and no matter how you do the calculations, the extra money they cost won't be worth it in an era of cost-cutting. Eliminate seniority protection without also establishing variable salaries within a range (like they have in corporate America) and teachers will be hard pressed to find a job after ten years.

Posted by: Cal_Lanier | February 9, 2011 5:33 PM | Report abuse

A lso,does anyone really believe that capable students will go to school for 5 years (Ca), spend thousands of dollars, have student loans to pay off, for a job that will only last 10 years? You've got to be kidding yourself if you think people will choose teaching as a profession without some sort of due process laws.

Posted by: chicogal | February 9, 2011 10:50 PM | Report abuse

No matter how a school chooses which teachers to lay off, we need to require that all high school teachers (at least--I would be in favor of extending this to all teachers above the first few grades) have college degrees in the academic subject they teach. Otherwise, it is perfectly legal for a high school needed to cut several teachers to lay off a history teacher and divide his or her class load up among the English or math teachers.

Posted by: sideswiththekids | February 10, 2011 8:44 AM | Report abuse

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