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Seniority-based teacher layoffs hurt student learning, UW study finds

As cuts loom, growing chorus challenges union policies

The Columbian
Published: December 24, 2010, 12:00am

SEATTLE — A study of Washington state teachers has found that deciding layoffs based solely on which teachers have the least seniority has a significant negative impact on students’ ability to learn, adding to a growing chorus calling for schools to take a hard look at union contracts dictating who gets to keep their jobs.

The study comes as tens of thousands of teachers around the country stand to lose their jobs next year as federal stimulus money dries up. In most places, union contracts and other policies generally dictate that the least experienced teachers are the first to go.

But that comes at a price, according to the study released exclusively to The Associated Press on Thursday.

The Center for Education Data and Research at the University of Washington, which studies the relationships between education policies and student outcomes, looked at the 1,717 Washington state teachers who were given layoff notices in either of the past two years.

Most of those teachers were given notices because they had the least seniority; nearly all of them ultimately kept their jobs, but many face layoffs next year as federal stimulus money used to retain them dries up.

Researchers compared the actual layoff notice list with a list of teachers who would have been laid off using a measurement of effectiveness known as “value-added,” in which teachers are judged by the improvement of their students on standardized tests.

Lacking seniority didn’t necessarily equate with doing poorly on the value-added measurement; about 275 teachers were on both lists.

Using teachers’ past performance, the researchers predicted the performance of two hypothetical school systems: one in which the teachers receiving notices had actually lost their jobs, and one in which more than 1,300 of the lowest-performing teachers had been fired instead.

Dan Goldhaber, lead author of the study and the center’s director, projected that student achievement after seniority-based layoffs would drop by an estimated 2.5 to 3.5 months of learning per student, when compared to laying off the least effective teachers.

“If your bottom line is student achievement, then this is not the best system,” Goldhaber said.

But determining who are the best and worst teachers is also problematic, said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, one of the country’s largest teacher unions.

She criticized the research, saying it could further push school districts toward evaluating teachers strictly on student test scores. Teacher unions criticize the value-added method, pointing to research showing it leads to inconsistent and inconclusive results.

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“This report is actually going to do a tremendous disservice. It will stop the real work that needs to be done to development comprehensive evaluation systems,” Weingarten said.

A young teacher in the Chicago suburbs who received a layoff notice last spring but kept his job said he likes the idea of keeping the best teachers, but wonders how schools can be sure they’re keeping the right people.

“You’re letting go of the people who probably know the most about connecting with students,” said Hemant Mehta, 27, who is in his fourth year teaching high school math in Naperville, Ill. Age and test scores are not the only ways to evaluate teachers, he added.

The research found that using a strict seniority system for layoffs has a variety of other consequences, including:

• School districts lay off more teachers to meet their budget goals because junior teachers are paid less.

• Some districts lay off teachers in high-demand and hard-to-fill areas such as special education.

• Seniority-based layoffs disproportionately hit schools where the most needy kids are and the least senior teachers usually work.