Losing experience in teacher layoffs

Leg Analyst calls for changing pink-slip process

California school districts should not be bound by seniority when budget cuts force them to lay off teachers, according to far-reaching report released yesterday by the state Legislative Analyst’s Office.

A Review of the Teacher Layoff Process in California also recommends changing the deadline for notifying teachers they may be laid off from March 15 to June 1, eliminating the teachers’ right to a formal hearing and giving more authority to local districts and bargaining units to determine the layoff process.

The LAO based its recommendations on responses to a survey from 230 out of about 950 school districts, although the Analyst’s Office said those responses included eight of the state’s ten largest districts.

Nearly three-quarters of layoff notices are rescinded. (Source: CA Legislative Analyst). Click to enlarge.

Nearly three-quarters of layoff notices are rescinded. (Source: CA Legislative Analyst). Click to enlarge.

One the main concerns was the huge number of “overnotifications,” or sending pink slips to far more teachers than necessary. According to the LAO, for every ten teachers given preliminary layoff notices last March, about 75 percent of them ended up keeping their jobs.

The problem lies in the timeline, which forces school districts to make budgetary decisions before the governor releases the May Revise, which contains the most current information on projected state revenues. To be on the safe side, districts issue layoff notices based on the worst-case scenario.

The report notes that lowering the number of initial layoff notices “would reduce the time and cost invested in conducting the layoff process, result in fewer teachers unnecessarily concerned about losing their job, and minimize the loss of morale in the school communities affected by layoff notices.”

Union leaders criticized that logic as overly simplistic. Shannon Brown, California’s 2011 Teacher of the Year and president of the San Juan Teachers Association, said moving the deadline for layoff notices may make sense from a fiscal perspective, but would have devastating consequences for laid-off teachers, giving them just a few weeks to find a new job.  That’s what contributes to low teacher morale, said Brown.  That and  the entire crisis in education funding in California that’s led to increasing class sizes, dwindling resources, teacher bashing, and the loss of some 32,000 teaching positions in the last four years. “The layoff notices only add insult to injury,” she said.

The high price of layoffs

It costs districts about $700 for each teacher who’s pink-slipped in the spring. Sacramento City Unified School District, which sent notices to more than 460 teachers last week, estimates the cost at $670 per teacher. That’s $308,000 for a district that’s been cut by $90 million over the past three years. Statewide, California school districts spent about $14 million last year in

Each pink-slipped teacher costs the district about $700.  (Source: CA Legislative Analyst) Click to enlarge.

Each pink-slipped teacher costs the district about $700. (Source: CA Legislative Analyst) Click to enlarge.

administrative and legal expenses, plus the costs of postage and paying for substitutes for teachers who challenged their notices before an administrative law judge.

Typically teachers will ask for a hearing if they believe the district made a mistake in their hiring date or the type of credential they hold; both factors that count when determining who gets laid off. But the LAO concluded that the hearings do not “add substantial value” to the process, and recommended that they be eliminated and replaced with a less formal review process.

San Juan’s Brown countered that the hearings in her district uncover mistakes nearly every year that result in people getting their jobs back. “If hearings were not held,” said Brown, “there would be people wrongfully terminated.”

Asked about the report at the Capitol yesterday morning, State Senate President pro Tem Darrell Steinberg said although he hadn’t had a chance to review it detail, he sympathized with the financial dilemma facing school districts and noted that unless the Governor’s ballot initiative to raise taxes passes in November, the fiscal crisis will become even more severe.  At that point, some of the LAO’s recommendations will have to be on the table.  “We need to consider an array of options moving forward,” said Steinberg.

That worries the California Teachers Association.  Spokesman Mike Myslinski said the LAO’s plan is a misguided effort that fails to address the underlying problem of the state’s inability to balance the budget.  “The bottom line,” said Myslinski, “is that the state really is in extraordinary times now, and we want lawmakers to be cautious of using these current dire circumstances to make permanent policy decisions that impact student learning.”

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  1. Can’t we let the unions decide on the notice date in their contracts. Even though the pink slips may cause unease teachers understand that they are only a formality at that point. Having only a couple weeks to find a job sounds like a bigger problem than how seriously to take the notice.
    One downside of moving the date is I think more teachers will take initiate and look for jobs on their own of things look bad. That will increase unnecessary churn. Replacing teachers is a lot more expensive than issuing plink slips I believe.

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  2. And of course the other issue is the question of seniority. While I understand the desire to remove seniority as the determiner the real problem is what you replace it with. They story you get in political discussions is that you replace it with laying off based on quality. This is great in theory, but difficult to flat-out impossible in practice. Especially with the way our state does finances. The reality is that decisions would be made based on cost, and almost nothing else. Although it rarely happens in the current environment, anytime that freedom is there, cost is the biggest factor. And of course the cheapest teachers are going to be youngest, least experienced and least credentialed. Of course one can argue that this doesn’t mean quality is sacrificed, but I dont know any teacher who thinks they were better their 1st year than their 3rd or 5th. And implementing policy that forces districts to look at options like TFA (no offense to the cause) as the standard for all hiring is going to result in some real problems, imho.
    So I think anyone that argues against seniority needs to be able to define how the option would be guaranteed to be more efficient than seniority on the whole. The LAO’s report admits this is a very difficult item. Of course they would like to see a discussion as I expect pretty much everyone would like. Problem is we probably wont get that, rather we’ll get a law.  :-P
    Flame guards up!  ;-)

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  3. Is there anyone — who doesn’t financially benefit from the government education complex — who thinks seniority should not be reformed and this silly March 15 date shouldn’t be extended?  $700 per teacher and the vast majority of pink slips go to teachers who will keep their jobs anyway.  It’s really indefensible.

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  4. @Navigio – ANYTHING is better than strict seniority.  It is the most arbitrary system you could possibly devise.  It actually determines who will keep their job based on how long you have been breathing.  Even basing layoffs on some kind of simple teacher evaluation (though that’s not exactly what I’m advocating) would be better than the current system. 

    Test scores are the name of the game and administrators are under a lot of pressure to deliver; so to assume that all layoffs would be based strictly on economic conditions is off the mark. 

    Do you think administrators HIRE teachers based on cost?  No, they typically hire teachers they think are going to perform, regardless of how much their salary might demand of the district budget.

    No other profession runs their employment operations this way but they all manage to get along just fine without all of the horror stories predicted by union bosses.

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  5. I agree that seniority is a scourge. All the talk of punitive administrators is a union device to keep the system in place. No principal I have ever met hires based on cheap-labor over skill and energy and commitment to kids and subject matter. It’s time to have  principals take responsibility for staffing  based on the specific needs of each school.
    In my grandkids’ elementary school of about 600 students,  14 teachers have received pinks slips. And this is because the  superb principal has worked hard over a decade to find and bring in the best staff she could find, undoubtedly working within and around the system as needed. Many of the staff, or “team” as she calls her faculty, must not have the requisite “seniority” to stay put, and so the school will suffer tremendous losses if the cuts materialize.

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  6. The real problem here is the layoffs and the crazy situation of the budget in the past few years.
    In Ye Olden Days, districts would RIF only because of declining enrollment. This is easy to predict by March 15. These RIF are not about reduction in services or declining need; they’re strictly based on the yo-yo of the state budget. Districts need to have their budgets done in June, but it’s supposed to be AFTER the state has passed a June budget. In the last several years, the budget for schools has been in doubt as late as *January* of the year already started… and by rather large amounts of money. Districts are of course trying to figure out what the heck to do and trying to keep options open, to avoid layoffs and serve kids in the current year, without putting themselves in a position of even more horrifying cuts for the next year to avoid bankruptcy. Not to mention the cash flow, when the state is in arrears on 30% of the money they owe.
    Passing a law changing how layoffs are done for all the future should not forget that we are in very unusual and crazy times.
    We must separate the idea of a layoff for financial reasons and a removal for performance reasons. People who are sub-par should be removed regardless of the district’s financial status.
    Y’all are talking about arbitrary. Yes, seniority is arbitrary. But with the count of teachers getting these notices, there is no way layoffs can be based on merit. You have even mid-sized districts pink slipping on order 100 teachers. I guarantee there is no one in that district with an up close and personal knowledge of the teaching ability of every teacher in that district, someone who can rank all the teachers by “quality” and lop off the bottom 100 with any kind of accuracy. Maybe everyone could agree on a handful, but the other 90 would still be arbitrary.
    You can’t use test scores, because maybe only half your staff even has test score data, even if you believed it was a measure of quality or that it was less arbitrary than seniority.
    The problem here is not how we’re choosing those 100 teachers. It’s that we’re talking about removing 100 teachers in the first place.
    You want to talk about uncertainty undermining morale? Wouldn’t a June date that could apply to every member of the staff increase that uncertainty?

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  7. One thing I think is worth considering in all aspects of teacher staffing is to give principals more control and to set up staffing and seniority questions within the school rather than district wide. I don’t know if this works out in practice or not, but it has the advantage that schools feel cuts more evenly and that principals – who do know all the staff well – have much more ability to meld their own team that works together. If every school has to lay off a proportional number of teachers, it might address some of the issues in play that are currently attributed to seniority. It also might discourage the most senior and sought-after teachers from pooling in a few ‘especially desirable’ schools and distribute them more equitably across all the kids.

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  8. Hi Capitol, first off, I feel a bit presumptuous talking about this topic, but I think its an important enough one to put my foot in my mouth in order to get things discussed..  :-)
    Obviously I cant take seriously that ‘anything’ would be better. Thats obviously not true, but I do get your point.
    Seniority is not based on how long you’re breathing. Well, not unless no one else does their jobs. If you only tenure and/or dont dismiss quality teachers, seniority would be something much different than a ‘breathing’ metric, do you agree? Do we forget that teachers are at-will for at least 2 years?  Does no one else work in education besides teachers? That story you posted about the lausd suit a few days back really shocked me when I noticed the district tenured that teacher after already having serious concerns about him. How can we somehow ignore that as part of the process? And one that was an obvious failure on the administration’s part?
    I looked at fed data for teacher firings a while back and found something of a shocker. I found that in many states, tenured teachers were fired at a higher rate than probationary ones.  What does that mean? I would love someone to explain how and why that is or should or even could be the case (actually I have my own ideas, but I think its worth thinking about). If its true, tenure is clearly not the problem. (obviously tenure and seniority are not the same thing, but they are related).
    Here is an exercise. Go find an open and honest and pro education parent. Ask them whether they’d rather have a 2 classes with 20 kids and inexperienced or even uncredentialed teachers, or one class with 40 kids and an experienced teacher. I can almost guarantee the answer (though I am willing to be surprised). I have seen these decisions happen, not necessarily at the hiring point, but at the layoff point.  Note that these are real questions in budget crunch times. Many districts will likely be closing schools and re-addressing/defining staffing ratios, etc. in the upcoming months/years, and when you have the freedom to make cost a factor, it will become one.
    Its a good point about test data being the name of the game. The problem is we dont have a floor for performance. :-(  Pretty much every board meeting I’ve attended where budget cuts have been voted on I’ve heard things like, ‘this goes against every fiber of my being as an educator because I know it will hurt the kids, but the reality is we simply dont have the money.’ So yeah, test scores are important, but they dont trump dollars.
    And to Frances’ other point, I know of teachers who were threatened with career-death for trying to speak out even on health and safety issues at their schools. These were battles with not only administrators, but even school board members, who, of course, make these final decisions. Personally I dont think punitive admins is really the problem, even though its often used as an argument, and sometimes does happen (if not anecdotally). I think when there is a problem with admins its that they are apathetic (eg firing rates mentioned above).
    What does frustrate me about this topic is every ‘ed code’ I’ve ever read (no I havent read all of them) includes the option of firing teachers for performance reasons. It also includes provisions for improving lower-performing teachers. The response to that is always, ‘oh, its too expensive or just too hard’. So the solution is not to make sure that process works rather lets just get rid of it because if its difficult or cost money it must not have any other redeeming qualities (forget that its actually part of the job description). One of the current ‘reform’ ideas seems to be related to this: lets just hire as many people as possible, whether they are ‘teachers’ or not, and then figure out a way to trim the ones that we assess as insufficient. That would be admittedly a whole lot cheaper, but seems to be missing the whole point of teaching (again we are already seeing this, so market forces will likely dictate it becoming the norm). Do we think that would do a better job of generating quality teachers? Charters kind of do this now, though not completely. This arguably seems to create as many if not more problems than it solves (I’ve seen parents teaching charter classes).
    To be honest, I think tenure and seniority are probably going to go away. I expect unions will as well shortly thereafter. However, I believe it is far from obvious that this will somehow ‘fix’ education. And I think in many cases it will make it worse.
    Lastly, Frances, I am sorry for what is happening at your school. We had a very similar situation at our school a couple years back and I truly share your frustration and stress. But for me, the question is not whether that is horrible (which it is), rather, whether that is happening at the expense of the opposite happening at another school in your district. Obviously I cant speak to your situation, but the reality is that the alternative is some other school losing its teachers (with the associated question of the relative value of those teachers to that community). Unfortunately the answer is not always easy, imho anyway.
    Gary, I know you’re reading this. Do you know why union negotiations are not covered under sunshine laws? I kind of get that that could get sticky, but the end result means that parents/community have virtually no say on the content of union contracts and dont know what they contain until after the fact. Would that lead to greater divisions within the community? I know teachers already feel heavily under attack.

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  9. @navigio:
    I looked at fed data for teacher firings a while back and found something of a shocker. I found that in many states, tenured teachers were fired at a higher rate than probationary ones.  What does that mean?

    There’s a natural assumption that the only fired teachers are the ones that are listed as “fired.” But, lots of resignations happen based on hearty suggestions from administration. Probationary teachers often are given a choice to resign before the district files to non-reelect. Even among tenured teachers, resignations (and retirements) frequently occur because of particular conversations and negotiations rather than because of a spontaneous decision from the teacher. (This is true in the private sector as well; it’s just that with teachers districts don’t usually issue press releases about the teacher “wanting to spend more time with his family.” :-) )

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  10. The title of this piece “Losing experience in teacher layoffs,” is perhaps saying more than it means to.
    Teacher experience is a key element in judging teacher quality. This would be lost if seniority rights were somehow eliminated. Teachers would be kept based on their cost. Just google “displaced experienced teachers in New York.” It tells the tale of around 500 teachers in NYC who rotated through schools because few schools, when schools were granted the control of budgets and hiring, wanted to pay more for teachers.
    That ability, to control the experience and pay of teachers, outside of seniority rights is damaging to schools, and particularly to schools with low income students. Just look at these quotes:

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    “There is nothing more important to our students’ success than strong teachers.
    Particularly concerning is California’s longstanding practice of assigning our least effective teachers to our neediest students. Often, struggling schools have trouble recruiting and retaining highly qualified teachers. As they gain experience, teachers typically transfer to schools with fewer low-income students and students of color, taking their higher salaries and expertise with them. This results manifest in glaring disparities in teacher salaries between high- and low-poverty schools, as revealed in our groundbreaking study, Hidden Spending Gaps.
    As a result, far too many of California’s low-income students and students of color are taught by novice, inadequately trained, and/or out-of-field teachers.
    Recently, the focus on teacher quality—as defined by years of experience and credentials—has shifted to how effective the teacher is in the classroom. Unfortunately, California’s existing teacher evaluation systems do not allow us to measure teacher effectiveness relative to student learning.”


    “Often times people attribute low-achievement to the make-up of a school’s population without ever examining factors like huge teacher-spending gaps. A school with high-teacher spending [aka, seniority protected teachers] indicates that teachers at that school are more experienced , have more credentials, higher education levels, and have had more professional development.”

    So what cane we glean from these quotes? 1) Students need strong teachers. 2) A problem exists when experienced teachers leave a school….taking their expertise with them. 3) A problem exists when “students of color are taught by novice, inadequately trained, and/or out-of-field teachers.” 4) Judging the “quality” of teachers is handicapped because:”Unfortunately, California’s existing teacher evaluation systems do not allow us to measure teacher effectiveness relative to student learning.” 5) To ensure all students have access to high quality teaching we need to ensure they have experienced teachers who: “…have more credentials, higher education levels, and have had more professional development.”
    The key quotes in question come from teacher union propaganda sheets…oh no, wait, those are the other quotes. The above quotes come from the ED Trust West web page. The second quote was from Roslynn Ali, formerly of Ed Trust, but now with the Duncan USDE. (This is likely not a positive developement.) Better get to the web page fast. They can be scrubbed.
    Of course the current position of Ed Trust West, recently articulated right here at Top Ed, is that eliminating teachers’ seniority rights and allowing newer teachers, and less qualified teachers by all of the criteria laid out in the quotes, is a bold move to insure student’s civil rights.
    Now some of you might be thinking-Yikes!-we thought Mitt Romney was a flip-flopper with feet firmly planted on an etch-a-sketch. Isn’t the current  Ed Trust position a total 180 from the previous position? Not really. Ed Trust’s first position was intended to undermine teachers’ transfer rights (where they have them) and the second is to undermine teachers’ seniority rights. So, the Ed Trust pattern is quite consistent in its way: The road to quality education is paved with undermined teachers. Just ask Ed Trust’s sponsors for their “studies” Broad and Gates. There’s a couple of objective sources for you.
    Don’t we now have “value added” (VA) to give us an “objective” evaluation for teachers? Sure, they just did one in NY. The list of disclaimers about the error of measurement in the teacher scores was about as long as the list of scores. And there were a lot of scores. Then there’s the fact that every legitimate list of educational researchers who’ve looked at VA have trashed it. This includes the American Academy of Sciences. But all of this is like the climate scientists on global climate change and biologists on evolution. The “true believers” know better.

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  11. Capitolreader, tell me what other profession doesn’t value experience. Seniority is not arbitrary. It recognizes that people actually acquire greater skills with more experience. Why do so many people who are not teachers think that teaching is the only occupation where experience doesn’t matter or might even be a hindrance? It’s ludicrous. I’ve been teaching for seven years, and I’m a much better teacher now than I was the first few years.

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  12. I should have added that it appears the LAO has bought into the Ed Trust et al mythology. To paraphrase old Einstein, just because you know how to count doesn’t mean your opinions add up. A classic example of number crunchers (the LAO) drawing qualitative conclusions based on a quantitative perspective.

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  13. Eliminate seniority and principals would use “my bestest pal” and cost as the determinants. I am a relatively new second-career teacher and I am always stunned at how little principals, administrators, and districts value teachers who raise scores or do a good job at motivating students. Their criteria is always insanely idiosyncratic and specific to the moment.  I would never have believed this before entering the field.
    Besides, removing seniority would just lead to billions in age discrimination lawsuit payouts.

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  14. Mary – Would you be comfortable going to a doctor knowing that his being hired or retaining his job had nothing to do with his performance but everything to do with how long he has been a doctor?  Would you be the least bit agitated if this doctor was not evaluated based on his record — both how successful he has been with his patients and how many mistakes he has made (among other factors)?  Experience is valued but it doesn’t work in vacuum.

    Not all teachers are the same.  Some schools’ best teachers simply have less seniority than others. 

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  15. Capitol, to complete the analogy assume for a sec that your doctor’s ‘rating’ was based on whether his patients had any diseases before visiting his or her office and were made irrespective of what kind of lifestyle his patients led. Also imagine that what treatment s/he was allowed to give you was determined  not by him or you but by some other citizen who had to pay for your treatment out of their own pockets and who believed they had no vested interest in your health. Perhaps they’d believe you didn’t even need a real doctor..

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  16. If we handled healthcare reform like education reform, a certain group of people would be pointing to the international statistics showing that we get the worst healthcare outcomes for the most money and be demanding that we fire more doctors to solve the problem, especially older, more experienced doctors.

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