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Job losses bad for teachers, not necessarily for education

My colleague Nick Anderson has revealed the possibility of widespread layoffs of teachers this year. He quotes Education Secretary Arne Duncan warning of as many as 300,000 lost jobs unless Congress passes a proposed $23 billion bailout for schools. "This is a real emergency," Duncan said. "What we're trying to avert is an education catastrophe."

Those job losses would be terrible for the teachers and their families. The bailout may make sense as a way to keep people at work and end the recession. But the effect of teacher layoffs on learning is not so clear. In the four decades we have had reliable information on school achievement, the national school learning curve and the business cycle don't seem to have had much to do with each other.

On the long term National Assessment of Educational Progress trend line for fourth grade reading, for instance, there has been little change since 1975. The line on that graph looks almost flat, with a slight rise from a scale score of 210 in 1975 to 220 in 2008. Annual GNP growth during that same period had, by contrast, some big jumps and drops. During the major recession in the early 1990s, for instance, when teachers as well as others suffered job cuts, the NAEP reading trend line showed a slight increase.

Schools usually compensate for losing teachers by raising class size and giving the teachers who are left more kids to handle. That is what is happening in many districts now. This puts a heavier load on those teachers, but they have proven themselves to be conscientious professionals and, at least up to now, have made sure there were no significant declines in learning during previous recessions.

In each case, when the economy has recovered, teacher hiring has resumed and class sizes have declined, although again with no noticeable effect on achievement levels.

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By Jay Mathews  | April 21, 2010; 1:21 PM ET
Categories:  Jay on the Web  | Tags:  NAEP long-term trends, achievement also not gaining during good times., achievement does not drop during recessions, job losses bad for teaches but not necessarily for education  
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If I was being threatened with a good ol' Texas public school paddling, I'd suggest that the reason scores have not suffered when teachers are laid off is that generally speaking (there are always exceptions) the least experienced and/or weakest teachers are the ones let go and the experienced and/or high quality teachers that remain are able to handle the slightly larger class sizes. I would rather have two very good teachers with 30 students than three okay or poor teacher with 20.

Posted by: horacemann | April 21, 2010 2:17 PM | Report abuse

Gosh Jay,

I'm really disappointed in this article.

The article mentioned one single piece of SLIGHT evidence that supported the headline.

OK... so fourth grade reading scores increased slightly during down economic times.

What about math scores during those same time periods? What about SAT & ACT scores? What about dropout rates? What about discipline problem statistics?

What the heck is going on here? Shouldn't you provide a bit more data to support such a shocking statement?

I enjoy reading your columns Jay, but I'm disappointed in the thesis of this one.

Posted by: MisterRog | April 21, 2010 4:57 PM | Report abuse

Well Jay, using your logic, it would make sense then, wouldn’t it, to start laying off more journalists since newspaper readership and purchases have been on a decades-long decline. Sure, it would be terrible for a few journalists families but then we haven’t really made any gains in maintaining our democracy what with journalists at the Washington Post ballyhooing an illegal and immoral war, degradation of our constitution through increased presidential powers, a near-catrastrophic collapse of our financial industry, etc.

I could go on but then I’m just a teacher. The only thing that could possibly matter as far as output from me are the arbitrary scores my students receive for taking simple multiple choice bubble tests. Right?

Posted by: GooberP | April 21, 2010 5:23 PM | Report abuse

for GooberP, that is exactly what we are doing. It may help, it may not. Can't tell yet. Journalists are far less likely to be working for big companies in the future.

For MisterRog---good point. All of those measures you cite have followed pretty much the same track as the NAEP long term, getting slightly better over the last 35 years, but no big up and down changes during recessions.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | April 21, 2010 5:54 PM | Report abuse

" fourth grade reading scores increased slightly during down economic times"

It is as likely this is due to more focus on school at family level.

Last budget crunch showed same increase in students' performance at my school. Why? Fewer afterschool activities (due to ability to pay & availability) and more time for homework. Also, familily & society focus on education as key to future employment. Remember all those stories about retraining for new millenium jobs? Kids heard and responded.

Posted by: altaego60 | April 22, 2010 7:19 AM | Report abuse

You certainly describe the trend I'm seeing in my small suburb. The first to go are the TAs, then the least experienced teachers, and the most experienced teachers (they are encouraged to retire early).

The very last to go are the administrative and support positions. All of the tenured administrators and teachers promoted out of the classroom (teacher learning facilitator, consulting teacher, and other non-teaching teachers) are secure.

The administrators and non-teaching support teachers have an even more tenuous relationship with student achievement than the teachers in the classroom. Plus they cost more. I wish to see a few administrative jobs go before the teaching and TA ranks are slashed.

Posted by: EduCrazy | April 22, 2010 7:28 AM | Report abuse

Wow Jay, I hardly even know how to respond to this one.

I have to ask you, would you be happy if your child had to attend a school with over crowded classrooms? (I'm making some broad sweeping assumptions that your children didn't attend DCPS. Am I correct?)

Seriously, could you on occasion consider the following, "would this be ok for my child or my grandchild?"

Finally, would you send your child to any of the KIPP schools that you regularly praise? Will your grandchildren attend KIPPs? As a DCPS parent, I would love to know the answer.

Posted by: Title1SoccerMom | April 22, 2010 7:33 AM | Report abuse

The more students per class, the less teacher attention for each student. In many school systems there are supervisors, consulting teachers and team leaders who are doing administrative work and have many non-teaching duties. That is probably saving money in the sense that the schools are so big that the administrators need help. But sometimes I think there are just too many Awards ceremonies, meetings and extra stuff that has nothing to do with teaching or learning. All very time consuming and the teacher have less time to plan and grade.

Posted by: celestun100 | April 22, 2010 11:53 AM | Report abuse

This columnist seems to have no real sense of what it means to raise classroom size, say from 26 to 33 in, say, a kindergarten classroom. This increase will be devastating for those children and their potential to be successful in school. My son, in a private kindergarten, had 14 classmates, a teacher and an aid. He could read the newspaper when he matriculated. Entering a public 1st grade he amazed his teacher with his reading ability and vocabulary. All the kids in his kindergarten class came out reading, and well. This doesn't happen in a class with 26 to 33 students with one over-worked teacher. I wonder what experience this columnist has to make such naive predictions. I doubt he's spent much time in a real world classroom. I have. Classroom size has an enormous effect on how much attention each child will receive from their teacher.

Posted by: seethewest | April 22, 2010 12:41 PM | Report abuse

Is it possible that the measurement tools are a problem? We base so many assumptions on these few tools without any apparent questioning of said tools.

Have you considered the population of students over that time? Are schools educating more students with limited skills due to disabilities or prior experience?

Posted by: Jenny04 | April 22, 2010 12:52 PM | Report abuse

Here's an idea. Since the number of students per class doesn't matter (much), why don't we transfer a number of teachers sufficient to raise class sizes by 2-3 students per class from NW DC to Wards 7 and 8.

Since class size doesn't matter, I'm sure the NW parents won't mind at all.

Posted by: Wyrm1 | April 22, 2010 2:29 PM | Report abuse

Doesn't it matter how those job cuts are being implemented? It may not make a huge difference for class sizes to go up by a few students, but cutting entire programs like art, music, PE, foreign language, GATE, etc. absolutely could significantly hurt the quality of education offered.

Posted by: CrimsonWife | April 22, 2010 2:30 PM | Report abuse

Wyrm1, I like how you think. I'm guessing the parents at Janney, Murch, Lafayette, etc... will be delighted and happily donate those spare classroom aides to my child's school. After all, all that hard work they do to fundraise is (as the Chancellor says) for the children.

"The best" DCPS schools raise between $250,000 and $500,000 annually to supplement their DCPS budget, and much of it goes to salaries. I' m sure that once those parents discover that class size doesn't matter, they will let my child's Title 1 school have the extra help.

What's truly depressing about all this is not the inequities between public and private schools, but the inequity between the school where the Mayor can place his children and the schools that most children of DCPS attend.

Posted by: Title1SoccerMom | April 22, 2010 3:07 PM | Report abuse

I think the inequities are everywhere in education. Sometimes even within a school. The "gifted" programs vs. "on-level" programs.
Also, the very idea that class size doesn't matter is so wrong.

My son (fourth grader) mentioned how he didn't like it when a lot of kids were absent because then the teacher could see what they were doing and they couldn't goof around as much.

We are in a suburban area and the kids attend a fairly good school. My son scores high on all the tests and behaves well. So, imagine if he is saying that.

Even the kids know that class size matters.
Whoever came up with the idea that it doesn't is lying.

Posted by: celestun100 | April 22, 2010 4:47 PM | Report abuse

I suppose if all you care about is standardized test scores, you can make this case.

However, some of us still believe our children are worth more than a mere score on paper, and this is where the teacher layoffs hurt.

Fewer teachers means fewer opportunities to connect with at-risk kids. Fewer opportunities to engage children in genuine learning and spark their curiosity and imagination. Fewer opportunities to build meaningful social skills.

These things aren't measured by NAEP or any other test. But I still believe they are worth the investment. I'm disappointed that you, apparently, do not.

Posted by: mdennis74 | April 22, 2010 11:08 PM | Report abuse

I'm glad to see some common sense going in to the comments here, because the original post seems underdeveloped. Perhaps it was true that some point in the past, education policy and reform relied too much on feelings and anecdotes, not enough on data. Now the pendulum has swung so far that we discount what we've experienced if there's no data to support it. The responses about class size (above) are a perfect example. And if test scores are what matter and will become the basis for teacher evaluation (or half of the evaluation in some models), I suppose I could take testing data from my classes to a job interview, if I wanted to change jobs, and answer half of the questions by just gesturing towards a spread sheet. How would you feel going to a parent-teacher conference, only to spend half the time reviewing state test performance for your child?

More of my take on this issue at

Posted by: DavidBCohen | April 23, 2010 2:39 AM | Report abuse

Mr. Mathews,

What you've just said is one of the most insanely idiotic things I have ever heard. At no point in your rambling, incoherent response were you even close to anything that could be considered a rational thought.

Everyone that has wasted their time reading this article is now dumber for having done so.

MisterRog and GooberP, I couldn't agree more.

Posted by: TECHtrainer | April 23, 2010 9:47 AM | Report abuse


Do young people a favor and tell them not to go into teaching.

Posted by: aby1 | April 25, 2010 4:11 PM | Report abuse

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