Time to retire "last hired, first fired"

Every day, sometimes several times a day, the media report more rounds of layoffs at major American firms, from Microsoft to Caterpillar to Fidelity to Macy's and beyond. But the private sector is not the only one hemorrhaging jobs in the current recession; school districts from coast to coast are letting go of employees, too. Indeed, saving "literally hundreds of thousands of teaching jobs" is one of Secretary of Education Arne Duncan's primary arguments in support of the massive federal "stimulus" bill, which would provide over 100 billion dollars to local schools.

Duncan is right to worry about stemming teacher layoffs, but there's more to this problem than simple job-loss numbers. That's because, as currently structured in most places--and locked into collective bargaining contracts, board policy, sometimes state law--such lay-offs can undermine not just the size but also the quality of the teacher workforce, both immediately and well into the future. That's because of which teachers are laid off and what signals this process sends to other educators and future candidates.

When a school district announces layoffs, often called a reduction in force (RIF), you know which teachers will get the axe: the newbies. It's a vivid illustration of the "last-hired, first-fired" rule, often found in the public sector but rarely in the private. It's designed to be objective, and administrators feel comfortable defending it. Its effect, however, is to protect seniority. In public education, in particular, it also avoids running afoul of tenure laws for, typically, none of the teachers selected for separation will have been in the district long enough to earn that coveted employment status. Unfortunately, seniority and tenure have almost nothing to do with quality teaching--or with matching good teachers with needy kids, ensuring that critical subjects are adequately staffed, etc. In general, teacher contracts or state law simply requires that the number of years employed by that district determine who will stay and who will be let go. Teacher quality--the ability to foster successful learning in children--almost never enters the picture.

Considering that teacher quality is the single most important school-based determinant of students' academic progress, it's essential to understand how layoffs affect it. In the short run, it may be a wash, since teachers with just one or two years of experience tend to be less effective than those with a few more years in the classroom. (Most research indicates that this "experience factor" tapers off within five years.) Dismissing novice teachers may actually improve the average level of skill of a district's teachers.

But sacking teachers from this group may also have a negative effect on average teacher quality, since some of the most energetic and positive teachers are those with little experience. For example, Teach For America corps members, who are carefully selected for their academic strength and their commitment to working in high-poverty schools, have been shown to be at least as effective as more experienced teachers. And what about teachers who are new to their current district but have strong track records elsewhere? They are just as vulnerable to being laid off as hapless rookies.

Thus, the immediate effect of a RIF on the overall quality of a district's teaching force depends on the prevalence of particularly capable novices and highly effective veterans who lack tenure. But that's just the beginning. This method of laying teachers off also powerfully signals those considering a stint in public education that, when push comes to shove, what really matters is seniority. This signal, invariably amplified by local media interest in layoff stories, makes it harder for districts to attract the kind of teachers they will need in the future--energetic, committed, and effective teachers who want to be rewarded for efficacy rather than the duration of their service.

Imaginative districts and determined leaders can find ways to maintain a high-quality teaching staff even when layoffs are unavoidable. Early retirement incentives, for example, can encourage tiring veteran teachers to make space for energetic newcomers. But seniority has to be addressed, too, whether by modifying the teacher contract and/or altering state law. When teachers must be let go, districts need the freedom, the wisdom, and the will to lay off the least effective. Mountains of student achievement data--much of it attributable to NCLB-induced annual testing--can be linked to teachers and can inform these decisions. Such data didn't exist during the last big wave of teacher layoffs during the recession of the early 1990s. But now that they are available, efforts to bring these data to bear on questions about teacher quality should be redoubled, especially when it comes to identifying chronically ineffective teachers.

Reliance on "last hired, first fired" rules highlights the inadequacies of the current human resource systems in public education and the need to rethink the teacher tenure process. Districts should work to ensure that only effective teachers get tenure and that effective younger instructors aren't sacrificed because of antiquated seniority rules. Today's economic cloud could even turn out to have a silver educational lining if states and districts use the current crisis to revamp their HR systems and ground rules. Just about everyone knows that would make for better education. The present confluence of budget stringency on the one hand and the press for stronger school performance on the other hand may be just what's needed to effect these important reforms. 

Miller and Chait are Senior Education Policy Analysts at the Center for American Progress.

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