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Some California districts experiment with new approaches to teacher layoffs

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A controversial measure to protect teachers at struggling California schools from the full force of budget cuts has lost ground after a legal battle in San Francisco.

Some educators say the strategy—which often means keeping on less experienced teachers in favor of firing those with more experience at other schools—has rescued nascent reform efforts that are turning around the state’s lowest performing schools. But it’s a strategy that has also enraged unions and become the subject of lawsuits in some of California’s biggest districts, including Los Angeles, Sacramento and San Francisco.

In the wake of the recession, many districts across the country have been forced to reduce their teaching forces. California has been hit especially hard, and the picture appears to be worsening: The state’s budget deficit has grown to $16 billion, much more than expected, and Gov. Jerry Brown has proposed cuts that would affect every school in the state.

Under California state law, teachers with the least experience must be the first to go during budget-based layoffs, meaning seniority—rather than classroom performance, or a school’s needs—dictates who stays and who goes. Struggling schools tend to have high concentrations of new teachers, so when school districts send out pink slips, these schools often lose disproportionate numbers of teachers.

Fueled by the belt-tightening that has come with the recession, a growing national movement has called for the overhaul of so-called “last-in, first-out” rules. Critics say the current system hurts schools most in need of stability by aggravating staff turnover. At the same time, education reformers have lauded alternative teacher-training programs like Teach For America that have brought in enthusiastic, but often inexperienced, teachers to help turn around low-performing schools.

In response, state legislatures across the country are pushing to reform tenure and seniority rules, sparking battles with powerful teachers unions. California has been slow to embrace these reforms, but in the last few years, districts have sought ways to join the movement to overhaul teacher work rules, too.

Instead of throwing the seniority rules out entirely, California educators and advocates embraced what seemed like a gentler approach to salvage reform efforts in schools like Oak Ridge Elementary, in Sacramento.

State law says districts can deviate from seniority rules to spare someone with specific training or skills, like bilingualism, or to protect educational equality. Last year, Sacramento made use of this loophole to protect the jobs of less experienced teachers at several of its worst schools.

At Oak Ridge, which sits in a troubled stretch of the city, almost all of the students come from low-income families. Two years ago, the school ranked among the state’s bottom 10 percent. Most of the teachers at Oak Ridge are relatively new to the profession, but they have been pushing hard to improve the school by overhauling how and what they teach. In 2011, the school’s Academic Performance Index (API) score shot up 82 points—a mammoth gain on the state’s rating scale for schools, which goes from a low of 200 to a high of 1,000.

“The whole culture of the school is different,” said Evelyn Sandoval, a school psychologist who joined Oak Ridge as part of its reform efforts. “Kids are learning.”

Those glimmers of hope were almost blotted out. Oak Ridge was in line to lose more than half of its teachers last year when Sacramento City Unified laid off over 300 of its roughly 2,400 educators. But Oak Ridge was spared when the district decided to protect its teachers, arguing that they fell under the loophole in the state law because they had been targeted for extra support to help the school improve.

In total, Sacramento City Unified exempted five struggling schools from the layoffs. Four of those five schools have teachers with markedly less experience, on average, than other schools in the Sacramento school district.

Even though few school districts have tried to use this loophole in the law, teachers unions say such attempts are unfair to experienced teachers.

“Any time you carve out some schools, you’re going to be hurting others,” said Eric Heins, vice president of the 325,000-member California Teachers Association. “It distracts us from the real issue: Why are we laying off so many teachers?”

In December 2011, the Sacramento City Teachers Union sued the school district over the policy. Unions also sued in Los Angeles and San Francisco. Los Angeles brokered a
settlement that allowed some schools to remain exempt from layoffs, but an attempt to avoid layoffs at some of San Francisco’s lowest-performing schools ran into trouble earlier this month when an administrative law judge said in an advisory ruling that the practice was improper.

Also this month, the Sacramento plan to spare educators in some of its neediest schools was deemed proper for some jobs, but not for others (such as counselors, social workers and P.E. teachers). The school board, ignoring a judge’s advisory ruling, voted unanimously to go ahead with its plan to exempt all staff at seven chosen schools from layoffs, shedding more senior staff at other schools in their place.

“The Board could have decided that it needs to follow the law,” the Sacramento teachers union wrote in a May 14th message on its website. “Instead … it demonstrated an eagerness to rob from our students and families by spending ever-more-precious education dollars on lawyers instead of kids.”

“We are currently exploring all avenues in response. We will keep you updated,” the union concluded.

Some districts have taken smaller steps to buck the old system—deciding, for instance, that the act of teaching in a struggling school can serve as a “tiebreaker” in deciding whom to lay off. In San Diego Unified, if two teachers were hired on the exact same day and the district only needs to lay off one, the teacher working at a school with a higher API score would be let go.

But experts say the imbalance in teacher experience between rich and poor neighborhoods is so great that a tiebreaker policy is unlikely to even out the pain of layoffs in the future.

Education Trust West, a nonprofit think tank that opposes “last-in, first-out” policies, calculated that impoverished schools are 65 percent more likely to have a teacher laid off than schools with few low-income students. Some activists complain that reform efforts in California are still blind to the differences that individual teachers make in the classroom.

“It’s a Band-Aid and not a cure,” said Sandi Jacobs, vice president of the National Council for Teacher Quality, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank focused on how teachers are evaluated and assigned to schools. “It doesn’t get at the question of, ‘Are we losing lots of effective teachers and keeping ineffective teachers?’ ”

Teacher Effectiveness

Since 2010, The Hechinger Report has been undertaking in-depth reports on states that are trying to improve the effectiveness of their teachers. So far we’ve looked at efforts in Florida, Indiana, Tennessee and Wisconsin.

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But measuring teacher effectiveness is complicated. One increasingly popular method—using value-added models to evaluate teachers in part on their students’ standardized test-scores—is also hotly debated. California lawmakers have shunned the idea so far.

Sacramento Superintendent Jonathan Raymond agrees with Jacobs that exempting some schools from layoffs is a short-term solution that doesn’t get at the bigger question of which teachers help students most.

“But short-term solutions are appropriate and justified when you’re talking about kids’ lives,” Raymond said.

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