New study: seniority-based teacher layoffs can hurt student achievement

Dec 23, 2010

A UW Bothell education research group finds the "last hired, first fired" formula when public school teachers are laid off can be detrimental to student achievement. Such policies are staples of teacher union contracts. The findings are drawing criticism from a national teacher's union, according to The Associated Press.

The Center for Education Data and Research used hypothetical systems to predict performance, comparing systems where seniority layoffs were enforced against one that had fired the lowest-performing teachers. The findings suggest students lagged two to three months behind in seniority-enforced systems.

"If your bottom line is student achievement, then this is not the best system," says study leader Dan Goldhaber.

American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten told the AP that studies relying on teacher performance measures are inconclusive:

"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.

The CEDR study finding’s claim 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

The research is based on layoff notices sent to more than one-thousand Washington State teachers. Though many were retained by local districts through Stimulus Funds, thousands of teachers here and across the country face job loss in the coming year as those funds have run out. 

The study was cheered by one Los Angeles group that has sued the school district there over seniority-based layoffs, claiming they deny students fair and adequate education, especially kids in low-income areas.

"It confirms the common sense and backs it up with evidence that many teachers being forced out in the current approach are superstar teachers," said David Sapp, an attorney for ACLU-Southern California. "It's further exacerbating the inequity that exists."

The LA Unified School District agreed in October to limit its reliance on seniority-based layoffs as a result of the lawsuit, shielding some schools from the practice entirely, as reported by Education Week's Stephen Sawchuk's blog Teacher Beat.

More Information

KPLU's Gary Davis surveyed the local discussion on seniority-based layoffs and teacher evaluations in a feature story from 2009, during local district and teacher union negotiations.