Districts will lay off some of their best and brightest today; that must change

(This commentary first appeared in TOP-Ed.)

Kaitlin Donovan, Nicholas Melvoin, Emilie Smith, and Tyler Hester didn’t expect to get a layoff notice. They were the kind of teachers typically romanticized in Hollywood movies. Young, energetic, and idealistic, they sought out the challenge of teaching in high-poverty urban schools and set high expectations for their students. Yet, each of them went to their teacher mailbox and found a pink slip.

As a young teacher in San Francisco in the ’90s, I experienced a similar layoff. Reading the pink slip was a like a punch in the gut. It said to me, “Nothing you’ve done matters to us.” That feeling was echoed more than a decade later by Emilie, who said, “It was like getting an F on a paper you didn’t write. It sends the message that we don’t care about your performance in the classroom.”

Emilie is right. Because of California’s teacher layoff laws, performance in the classroom doesn’t matter. California has decreed that the most important aspect in layoff and other personnel decisions in school districts is seniority – the amount of time a person has been employed by a school district. In addition, California has mandated a layoff process for teachers and other staff that is both backwards and brutal.

As a district administrator in San Diego Unified, I watched this process unfold multiple times as we reacted to the education cuts in the governor’s January budget. In the 21/2 months before the March 15 layoff deadline, district leaders and school principals scrambled to make a series of high stakes budget and personnel cuts that were little more than stabs in the dark. Because this process was dependent on seniority, district personnel spent countless hours tracking down seniority dates and certifications in order to ensure that the least senior employees either lost or were bumped out of their jobs. And because high-poverty schools often had the least senior employees, they would often see their school staffs decimated.

I’ll always remember one particular school, Jackson Elementary. Long one of the district’s lowest performing schools, Jackson had experienced a dramatic turnaround under the leadership of its principal, Rupi Boyd, and a group of new teachers. Refusing to accept the belief that their children couldn’t learn because they were all poor and English learners, Rupi, now the chief academic officer for MLA Partner Schools in Los Angeles, and the teachers produced dramatic improvements in student learning, raising the school over 200 API points from the bottom to the middle of state school rankings. For their achievements, Jackson was recognized as one of the state’s distinguished schools. Yet, when the 2007 budget cuts came, nearly all of Jackson’s teachers received pink slips. They just didn’t have enough seniority.

For Jackson’s entire school community, this process was a disaster. Yet, with all the focus on just “preventing budget cuts,” the negative impacts of the mechanics of budget cutting and the layoff process typically attracted little attention. Now, three years of state budget cuts later, it is strikingly clear that both the education budget cuts and the state-mandated layoff processes based on seniority are disastrous for California’s future.

In “Victims of the Churn,” our most recent report, we are able to quantify these negative impacts with data from three large urban districts. The findings should be familiar to school communities across California. In all three districts, thousands of teachers get layoff notices unnecessarily because of unrealistic state-mandated deadlines and requirements to focus on seniority. When it comes to final layoffs, students in high-poverty schools are 65 percent more likely to have a teacher laid off. And in certain high-need schools more 15 percent of staff members lose their jobs.

In Nicholas Melvoin’s case, his high-poverty school in Los Angeles is now protected from this lunacy because this teacher went to the ACLU after he and nearly all of his colleagues received a pink slip. The settlement of the lawsuit against Los Angeles Unified now provides a strong measure of protection for students in some of LA’s highest-need schools.

What legislators must do

Unfortunately, one lawsuit won’t necessarily protect the students in the schools where Kaitlin, Emilie, and Tyler taught. Nor will it prevent other committed young teachers from leaving the classroom entirely. That will require courage on the part of our leadership in Sacramento to change longstanding policies.

Policymakers should start by changing the layoff notification date to prevent over-noticing; giving districts explicit flexibility to protect high-poverty schools from the disproportionate impact of layoffs; replacing California’s seniority-based layoff requirements with laws that emphasize job effectiveness and competence; and providing additional flexibility and authority to principals and school communities to maintain the stability of their school staffs in good and bad budget times.

None of these reforms are easy or politically expedient. All of them have been vigorously opposed in the past by the Sacramento special interests such as the statewide teachers unions focused on keeping things the same. But as Gov. Brown and legislative leaders approach California taxpayers with requests for vital funding, these are the reforms that Californians should expect in return for their hard-earned dollars.

Arun Ramanathan is executive director of The Education Trust—West, a statewide education advocacy organization. He has served as a district administrator, research director, teacher, paraprofessional, and VISTA volunteer in California, New England, and Appalachia. He has a doctorate in educational administration and policy from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. His wife is a teacher and reading specialist and they have a child in preschool and another in a Spanish immersion elementary school in Oakland Unified.

Filed under: Commentary, Pay and Tenure, Reforms, Teaching

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6 Responses to “Districts will lay off some of their best and brightest today; that must change”

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  1. Jan Dietzgen on Mar 15, 2011 at 3:54 pm03/15/2011 3:54 pm

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    Reading the New Yorker and The New York Times’ articles on “The Rubber Room,”  I think Jeff is correct. The Fallacy is to assume that the charges against the teachers assigned to the famous room are indeed guilty of the charges. This is far from clear.  In California Districts hire specialized law firms to aggressively denigrate the reputation of targeted instructors, and use mobbing to force them to leave. The NYCS have hundreds of senior teachers o leave of absence wrongly accused  on the three offenses that justify dismissal. Although there is the Morrison Standard, from the NYT reporting it appears that not much consideration is given as to whether these events actually happened. This appears to be the loophole to rid the system of expensive, educated, experienced teachers. Yes, there are many fantastic young teachers, but also there are some fantastic ole teachers also. The trend is to have a high turnover rate, when the law permits. ie. Basic Aide Districts.

  2. Gary Ravani on Mar 15, 2011 at 1:36 pm03/15/2011 1:36 pm

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    It is almost amusing that just a year or two ago EdTrust West was complaining (they had done a “study” no less) that there were not enough experienced teachers at high-needs schools. Experience for teachers was the one criteria they wanted to use to establish the quality of education at a school. It is a pretty easy target.

    Now…ah, how times and agendas change…it is only right that districts should have the ability to dismiss teachers with more experience as that is the silver bullet du jour for education.

    Granted experience is the key componeent of competence but seniority rights in layoffs is a symptom of the problem, not the problem itself. The problem is that the very day a teacher achieves enough seniority to transfer out of certain schools they do, leaving more openings to be filled by junior teachers. The reasons for this have been  identified by teachers who transfer (or leave the profession)  and they are: poor site/district leadership, lack of resources, and a general working environment that doesn’t allow them to be the best teacher they can be. It is NOT the kids!

    You want to fix the problems? Fix the leadership (site & district), increase resources, and assist parents and the communities the kids live in to provide support for them both in and out of school. Research (see ETS.com “The Family: America’s Smallest School” as one example) indicates school effects account for one-third of student achievement. Teachers are only one part of that third. There is the expectation that the one-third tail is going to wag the two-thirds dog.  Not gonna happen

    To  Mr. Jones. Sir, the number of teachers in the NYC “rubber rooms” was less than 600. It is interesting that NYC schools have had mayoral control (yet another hang-fire silver bullet) for around seven years. Dismissal proceedings were held up during that period by too few adminstrative law judges, an issue only in the command of the mayor. Why did it become the union’s problem?

    There is an answer as to why it’s the union’s problem and why layoffs are a problem of teacher seniority rahter than the underfunding of the schools. It is the uber-ambition of conservatives, as well as neo-liberals (See Arne Duncan here) to undercut unions and collective bargaining rights.  The union ranks in the private sector have been decimated and now it’s time to move on to the public sector (see Wisconsin here). Good teachers, and school kids, get chewed up in this process, but what the hay, there’s collateral damage all over.

  3. Fred Jones on Mar 15, 2011 at 9:39 am03/15/2011 9:39 am

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    NYC Mayor Blumberg is facing a staggering school district deficit this year, and evidently he needs to lay off thousands of teachers to help balance the budget (since over three-quarters of their budget is devoted to staff salaries/benefits).  There are nearly 4,000 teachers who are sequestered in “rubber rooms” (buildings to house dangerous or incompetent teachers who cannot be trusted in the presence of students, but who cannot be fired due to collective bargaining contracts).

    The Mayor and Governor have asked the Union to relax its contract to allow them to save the most inspirational but less experienced teachers by instead letting most of the sequestered teachers go.  But the Union bosses have staunchly defended their “last hired — first fired” contract, and the Legislature has backed the Union. 

    This is painfully illustrative of the problem facing K-12 public education.  Students and teacher quality be damned!  Let’s protect pedophiles and the insane, rather than hard-working and successful instructors (who — simply due to a lack of seniority — will be dismissed in favor of those occupying the “rubber rooms,” at a cost to NYC of $100,000,000/year) … ugh!

  4. E. Rat on Mar 15, 2011 at 6:01 am03/15/2011 6:01 am

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    As a teacher at a high-needs school where half the staff has been noticed this year (down from two-thirds last year ), I agree that we need to discuss how layoffs inequitably impact high-needs schools and what impact that has for equal opportunity in education.
    However, the rush to conflate this issue with “teacher effectiveness” is either disingenuous or a case of the ed deformers jumping the bandwagon to co-opt it.  Too many of the people soberly discussing my colleagues’ pink slips have no interest in making our high-needs schools places where educators and families alike can thrive.  Instead, they favor policies that are guaranteed to continue teacher churn even when budgets do not call for layoffs – increased class sizes, more standardized testing, fewer social services and social-emotional programming and so on.

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