The Layoff Epidemic

by Seyward Darby | June 5, 2010

Two years ago, Nick Melvoin was hired to teach English at Markham Middle School, which serves some 1,500 students in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles. The school, which is 72 percent Hispanic, 27 percent black, and mostly poor, posts among the lowest test scores in the city. Last year, nearly 60 percent of students were suspended at some point. And, just off school grounds, students must navigate poverty, crime, and gangs. But, fresh out of college, Melvoin, a Los Angeles native, was excited to work with kids in one of his city's most challenging schools. "They're high energy and, despite the statistics, want to go to college and be doctors and teachers and police officers," Melvoin says.

Six months into the school year, however, Melvoin and 42 other teachers at Markham—a full 57 percent of the staff—were told by Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) that they would be laid off come summer. There was a budget crisis, and teachers had to go. More specifically, young teachers had to go because, according to LAUSD's contract with the local teachers' union, schools follow a "last-hired, first-fired" policy, under which the district's most junior teachers are dismissed before those with more experience. Melvoin and many of his colleagues were on the chopping block because, as is the case in many poor schools nationwide, Markham had a heavy concentration of novice teachers.

When school started in the fall, Melvoin, who had agreed to return as a substitute, saw students' schedules that listed a full-time teacher in only one of six classes. In a single course, students had as many as ten subs over four months—some good, some terrible. Melvoin said one sub told him he was only showing up to supplement his unemployment check. Students were given busywork, only to have it tossed in the trash when class ended because the sub might not be there the next day. "We spent more time as a staff orienting people to where the faculty restrooms were than helping them with students," Melvoin says.

After months without a permanent job, Melvoin was finally rehired. He was serving as chair of his department and had started a school newspaper. "When you speak of Mr. Melvoin to me, it's like speaking about David Beckham in soccer," says Markham's principal, Tim Sullivan. But then, in mid-winter, a new round of pink slips was distributed to teachers across LAUSD, including 34 at Markham. Melvoin received one, again.

He isn't alone. Last year, U.S. schools laid off 60,000 staff, double the level in 2008. This year, as states slash their budgets in response to the ongoing recession, the number will be even higher. Urban districts are bracing for big hits, but smaller places aren’t immune: Los Angeles anticipates laying off about 1,000 teachers, while, in Greensboro, North Carolina, 160 could lose their jobs. And federal help is faltering: A proposed $23 billion payout that could prevent hundreds of thousands of layoffs is under fire from conservative members of Congress who balk at the idea of throwing state education coffers, which the stimulus package infused with funds to save teachers' jobs, another financial lifeline.

Yet the story of layoffs, as Markham shows, isn't just about the number of jobs lost; it's about who exactly loses their jobs, and where. Most school districts use "last-hired, first-fired" policies. Teachers' unions don't want to give them up. And, despite pressure from numerous education reform groups, Congress and the Obama administration have refused to attach requirements to the proposed payout that would compel states to reform their systems. "Right now, the most important thing is to stop the bleeding," Senator Tom Harkin, chair of the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, said at a press conference in early May, rejecting calls to link the teacher-rescue money with reform.

But stopping the bleeding won't heal the wound. Indeed, even if the jobs measure passes or districts find ways to save money without cutting teachers, states will soon find themselves back at square one. When they have to hand out pink slips en masse again next year (which the bad economy assures will happen), they will still be required to eliminate their most recent recruits—doing further damage to schools, like Markham, that need great teachers the most.

The rationale behind seniority-based layoffs is simple: The longer you've been working, the more secure your job should be. According to the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ), "the overwhelming majority of school districts" follow this rule, including 75 of the country's 100 largest school districts. They dismiss teachers with the fewest years in the classroom first; then, they work their way up the experience ladder until they've removed enough teachers to meet their budget goals.

The system eschews any consideration of teacher quality, instead working off the assumption, long-touted by unions, that the most valuable teachers are the most experienced ones. But research shows that a teacher's effectiveness generally levels off after the first three years—and that's just on average: Obviously, in any given situation, a second-year teacher like Nick Melvoin could be more effective than, say, a tenth-year one. So, seniority-based layoffs often eliminate some of a district's best teachers simply because they have only spent a few years in the classroom. Last year, Indianapolis gave pink slips to two of its ten finalists for the district's teacher of the year award. "Seniority doesn't tell us nearly enough to make a decision," says Tim Daly of The New Teacher Project, a national education reform group that has studied the issue extensively.

But the most insidious of the layoff system's defects cuts far deeper, exacerbating socioeconomic and racial divides that have long plagued schools. A study released last month by the Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE) found that poor and minority students, based on data from California's 15 largest districts, are disproportionately harmed by seniority-based layoffs. Their schools, typically, employ many novice teachers. Often, these teachers have taken jobs vacated by more experienced ones, who've either accepted positions in wealthier neighborhoods or left the profession altogether. Organizations like Teach for America also specifically place young members (including Melvoin) in some of the country's most challenging classrooms. As a result, the CRPE study found, when layoffs happen, the highest-minority schools lose about 60 percent more teachers than the lowest-minority ones. "When schools see more teacher turnover, established relationships are lost," the study says.

And it's not easy to fill the gaps, as Markham Middle quickly discovered. Per local policy, the only teachers Markham could hire full-time to fill its numerous vacancies were in a pool of experienced LAUSD teachers who had either left their old jobs voluntarily or been shuffled out for some reason (the elimination of an arts program, for instance). But some of these teachers refused to consider Markham because of its location. Others came, stayed a few days, and then quit. Still others were placed in subject areas they weren't trained to teach. Meanwhile, dedicated teachers like Melvoin who'd been able to come back as substitutes only were paid by the hour as they tried to plug the holes in empty classrooms. "I have a hard enough issue trying to recruit people to come to Markham, let alone laying off the people who want to be here," says Principal Tim Sullivan.

Many substitutes with no attachment to Markham struggled to stay afloat with their students, as instances of bad behavior skyrocketed. Sullivan recalls a phone call from a student, asking for him to come take over a class. "The students had just overwhelmed this substitute, who more than likely shouldn't have been sent to Markham," Sullivan says. "This was the fourth or fifth substitute the kids had had since they had started school. … They were being disruptive, not paying attention, sitting on desks, not following teacher's directions." Amid constant disruption, students quickly fell behind in their classes. "They'd say, 'I'm not learning anything in history,'" Melvoin recalls. "If I asked them for concrete examples, 'What are you learning in science,' they'd say … 'We haven't had a teacher, so we copied a page out of the textbook.'"

When LAUSD told Sullivan he would lose more staff in this year's layoffs, he was furious. "If you refuse to sit down and take a look at other solutions to make sure this won't happen again," Sullivan says of higher-ups at the state, district, and union levels, "then you are part of the problem."

Markham ultimately found its own solution. On May 12, in a case brought by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), a California superior court ruled that LAUSD cannot lay off more teachers at Markham and two other Los Angeles middle schools (including one that lost more than 70 percent of its staff in 2009). "What greater tragedy than to destroy a child's spirit and desire to learn?" says Mark Rosenbaum, lead counsel for the ACLU, describing his approach to the case. The judge agreed. Nick Melvoin will keep his job.

But what's to be done everywhere else, where court cases won't save the day? Margeurite Roza, a researcher on last month's CRPE study, says districts could (and should) cut costs without dismissing teachers based on seniority. Otherwise, the profession is under serious threat. "Would you, if you had a twenty-one-year-old kid, suggest that they go into teaching right now?" Roza asks. Choosing an alternative route, New York City announced on Wednesday that it will freeze wages, saving some 4,400 instructors their jobs. But, in other districts, unions have refused wage concessions. Many states and districts are scrambling to find money by shortening the school week, implementing furloughs, and even asking for private donations. And they are hoping that the embattled congressional payout for teacher salaries will pass.

But these steps, even the federal funding, will only patch states through to next year. "Last-hired, first-fired" stands strong in most states and school districts. In California, a reform bill is mired in the state senate, despite support from Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, because of vehement union opposition. And, on a broader scale, the country's two biggest teachers' unions have resisted mandating reform in the congressional jobs measure. (The Hill and the Obama administration didn't go to bat for change, either.) "There are no good ways to lay off teachers," Randi Weingarten, head of the American Federation of Teachers, recently told the National Journal.

It's a complex problem, to be sure, fraught with logistical and political hurdles. But that doesn't mean states and districts—or Washington, for that matter—should put off tackling it, because putting a Band-Aid on the crisis now will only guarantee facing it again a year down the road.

What's more, support for reform is growing from the ground up, perhaps more quickly than unions would like to admit. When The New Teacher Project recently surveyed 9,000 teachers in two large Midwestern school districts, about 75 percent said they would support considering "additional factors" in layoff decisions, and they "tended to favor factors that relate to their effectiveness and performance more than time served in the district." Arizona has made it illegal to let teachers go solely on the basis of seniority. Charlotte-Mecklenburg County in North Carolina has begun using teacher quality to determine who should be dismissed. Michelle Rhee, the hard-charging superintendent of Washington, D.C.'s public schools, laid off several hundred teachers last fall based on "school need," not just seniority. And, in several states, there are efforts underway to reform notoriously weak teacher evaluation systems, which would allow quality to be considered more accurately and efficiently in the layoff process.

Nick Melvoin's prescription is simple: "Treat teachers like professionals," he says. In other words, value the teachers who do a good job, not just those who have been around the longest. Otherwise, schools like Markham will continue to suffer.

Seyward Darby is the assistant managing editor of The New Republic.

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