For the most part, elementary and secondary education in the United States is funded with local tax dollars, with assists from state and federal coffers. And the biggest line-item expense? Teacher salaries. When it comes time to cut the budget, layoffs are announced, and because of union contracts teachers with seniority are favored. Usually those most recently hired are the ones who go.
But is this the smartest way to fix the budget? Dan Goldhaber, director of the Center for Education Data and Research at the University of Washington Bothell, and Roddy Theobald, a researcher at the center and a doctoral student in statistics, write in the fall issue of Education Next this subservience to union seniority rules is wreaking havoc on the education system, often axing the most energetic and creative educators in the system. Worse yet because they are the most recent hires, their salaries are at the low end of the pay scale so it takes more layoffs to meet the dollar figure necessary to reduce the budget, pushing up class size and sometimes forcing districts to eliminate subject areas and programs entirely.
Rather than relying on seniority to determine layoffs, the authors argue districts should measure teacher effectiveness in the classroom to determine who gets laid off.
Goldhaber and Theobald examined data from the 2008-09 and 2009-10 school years in Washington state, where 1,717 and 407 layoff notices, respectively, were handed out to teachers. However, it should be noted, not all the notices resulted in dismissals, with a good number of targeted teachers actually returning to the classroom.
Their analysis found about 60 percent of the teachers who received layoff notices had no more than two years experience and 80 percent had no more than two years seniority in their current districts. They were also less likely to have advanced degrees. The result: Those who received layoff notices earned about $15,000 less annually than those who did not.
"Had all 1,717 teachers who received layoff notices in 2008-09 actually been laid off, the salary savings in the state would have been $5.52 million," the authors found.
As noted earlier, one of the prevailing critiques of seniority-based layoffs is that it is necessary to lay off more teachers in order to attain a specified budget objective than it would be if districts used alternative criteria.
"If teachers were laid off at random [so that the laid-off teachers made the average salary in their district], we estimate that it would only be necessary to lay off 1,349 teachers in order to attain the same budgetary savings. This is roughly 20 percent less than the actual number of teachers who received layoff notices."
The study found teachers with an advanced degree or an endorsement in a study area where there are teacher shortages were 0.6 percent less likely to receive layoff notices than those with endorsements in health, physical education and the arts.
Whether it's fair or not, teacher effectiveness is measured through standardized testing, which doesn't factor in such issues as whether parents push their children to do well in school.
"Let's just say you've developed the miracle model that adequately controls [for] poverty. Do you want districts to have power to choose between your model and models that don't control for poverty? Do you really want districts to experiment on the hypothesis that a person who can raise test scores in a lower-poverty school could do so after replacing a teacher in the inner city?" asked John Thompson in response to the analysis on the Education Next Web site. "You would have given districts blank checks to replace higher paid teachers, regardless of real effectiveness."
"Poverty rates and parent education levels are the best indicator of student success," said Bert Lictus, also posting to the Web site. "The government has dropped the ball in doing its job providing social services, job stimulation and economic equality. The easiest thing to do is blame the schools for declining performance when in fact the circumstances outside a school's control are the driving force. Yes, there are bad teachers, but it's not the norm."
Requests for comment from the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers went unanswered.