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Eye on the News

Marcus A. Winters
How Not to Lay Off Teachers
New York’s seniority-based system lets too many good young teachers get away.
2 April 2010

A lot of New York’s teachers are about to be laid off. On March 21, the State Senate voted to slash state education funding by $1.4 billion, part of a resolution it passed in response to Governor Paterson’s January budget proposal, which has still not been finalized (yes, the state’s budget is late again). A recent survey showed that district superintendents across the state plan to cut as many as 15,000 teaching jobs. The cuts will be most drastic in New York City: according to Chancellor Joel Klein, Gotham needs to get rid of as many as 8,500 of its 75,000 teaching positions next year.

No one wants to lose so many teachers. Since state policies mandate laying off teachers with the least seniority first, some of the best young teachers will be lost. The seniority law poses a particular threat to New York’s school system, because it will stall or even reverse the city’s impressive progress in recruiting a new type of qualified educator.

Which teachers stay or go is immensely important for student learning. The best research finds that students assigned to good teachers rather than poor ones at the start of the school year will make an additional grade level’s worth of progress come summer. So, if layoffs are necessary, it’s vital to spare the best classroom instructors.

Basing layoffs on seniority would make sense if it were true that more experienced teachers were always more effective. But a wide and uncontroversial body of research says that’s not the case. We know that after only a couple of years in the classroom, a teacher’s additional experience has no bearing on the amount her students learn.

For most school districts in the state, basing layoff decisions on seniority is no better or worse than picking names out of a hat. Some good and some bad teachers will be blindly let go in what will be essentially random layoffs. The effect on overall teacher quality in these districts will be a wash, and the resulting increased class sizes will only have a mild negative effect on student proficiency.

But seniority-based layoffs do represent a missed opportunity for most New York school districts. If we instead targeted layoffs to the least effective teachers, we could actually improve overall teacher quality. We could more than offset any damage increased class sizes cause by removing ineffective teachers and assigning their students to classrooms led by better educators.

Seniority-based layoffs are a much more serious concern in New York City, however. In recent years, the city has dramatically improved the quality of the new teachers it hires. About a third of the teachers hired in the city since 2006 come from alternative-certification programs such as Teach for America or the New York Teaching Fellows. These programs recruit motivated, bright individuals without education backgrounds to staff low-performing public schools. TFA recruits new graduates from prestigious universities, while the Teaching Fellows mostly recruit candidates from the professional world. For a sense of just how promising this new crop of teachers is, consider that about 11 percent of Yale’s graduating class applied for TFA in 2007.

The influx of alternative-certification teachers has changed the face of Gotham’s teaching ranks. Researchers at the Urban Institute recently found that the arrival of this teaching cohort was responsible for narrowing the gap in teacher quality between high- and low-poverty schools in the city. But last year’s budget crunch stalled the city’s teacher revolution. Instead of filling vacant classrooms with hungry new instructors holding freshly minted Ivy League diplomas, schools had to settle for teachers languishing on what is known as the Absent Teacher Reserve—educators displaced from their previous schools who can’t find a new job in the district. The city pays such teachers not to teach because state law prohibits firing them.

As a result, the city hired half the number of new teachers in 2009 as it did the previous year, and a third as many as it hired in 2007. New teaching talent will be even scarcer next year. And because the young TFA educators and New York Teaching Fellows were the last hired, they will be the first fired when the layoffs start.

It goes without saying that many experienced teachers are good at their jobs; no one argues for laying off the most senior teachers en masse. And certainly some young, alternatively certified teachers are ineffective and should be let go. But the current system for determining layoffs solely based on years served is simply wrongheaded. New York should instead adopt strategies that help weed out the worst teachers and identify (and keep) the best, regardless of when they were hired. We should rely on the input of principals to identify teachers who really help students, and also use student performance on standardized tests to help guide— but not determine—necessary layoff decisions.

Marcus A. Winters, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, conducts research and writes about education policy.

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