California Pink Slip Mania 2010: Quality-Based Layoff Edition

As the AP reports this week, California’s budget crisis could cost nearly 22,000 teachers their jobs this year.

State school districts had issued 21,905 pink slips to teachers and other school employees by Monday, the legal deadline for districts to send preliminary layoff notices.

While these numbers are exaggerated because California law mandates that districts can only issue pink slips before March 15th (so districts overstate layoffs and then rescind them later), it is clear that thousands of teachers will be let go in 2010. Therefore, it is critical that we continue to examine how these layoffs effect both teacher quality and cost savings for school districts.

Teachers unions could negotiate less extreme budget saving measures such as wage freezes or pay cuts rather than large layoffs. However, unions have negotiated automatic “step” salary increases years in advance and have been reluctant to freeze these policies even if it means thousands of teachers losing their jobs. In light of this behavior, it is likely that most districts in California will move forward with some teacher layoffs.

In California state law and local collective bargaining agreements dictate that teachers are layed-off on a “last-hired, first fired” system based on seniority. This seniority-based system means that a much larger number of teachers are fired because it takes a larger number of “new” teachers to fill budget gaps than more strategically looking at the entire teacher workforce and laying off teachers based on performance. It also means that students will lose many high-quality teachers that rank lower on the seniority scale.

As education researcher Marguerite argues in “Seniority-Based Layoffs will Exacerbate Job Loss in Public Education,” to reduce salary expenditures by 10 percent, a district must cut 14.3 percent of the workforce when time served in the district is the driving factor. In this scenario, seniority-based layoffs result in 262,367 more job losses nationwide than seniority-neutral policies. And since teachers make up 51.2 percent of the school workforce, nearly 134,000 of those extra losses would be teachers.

California needs a quality-based layoff system.

A March 2010 New Teacher Project report, “A Smarter Teacher Layoff System,” surveyed 9,000 teachers in two anonymous urban school districts. The survey found that seventy percent of teachers in one district and 77 percent of teachers in the other, including most of tenured teachers, said that factors other than just seniority should be considered in a layoff.

In both districts, teachers rated classroom management, teacher attendance and instructional performance based on evaluations, as more important factors than the number of years that a teacher has taught in the district or total years of teaching.

The teachers surveyed in the New Teacher Project report argued that there are already quality-based evaluations that should factor into the current teacher layoff system. In the districts surveyed, teachers strongly supported including these three factors:

  • Average classroom management rating from the past three years (if it is a component of the overall performance evaluation)
  • Average teacher attendance over the past three years
  • Average evaluation rating from the past three years

Similarly, in Los Angeles, a LA Unified task force of about 50 parents, teachers and administrators suggests seniority-neutral layoffs, paying high-performing teachers more, using student test scores in evaluations and overhauling the tenure system.

Among their recommendations:

  • Revamp teacher evaluations to include several new categories, including the addition of several years worth of student test score data analyzed to show whether a teacher is effective. Parent and student feedback should also be considered.
  • Give higher pay to high-performing teachers willing to work in tough-to-staff schools. The task force discussed starting a small pilot program in which a group of teachers would be eligible for extra pay if their students met certain goals.
  • Stop basing some layoffs and staffing decisions on seniority.
  • Wait up to four years before granting tenure to teachers rather than the current two years and require evaluators to endorse instructors for tenure.
  • Push the state Legislature to eliminate the Commission on Professional Competence, a statewide group that has final say over disputed teacher firings.