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Researcher looks at how CMS handled layoffs

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools’ approach to teacher layoffs during the Great Recession seems to have benefited student achievement while saving some jobs, according to a new research paper.

Many school districts that were forced to let teachers go due to budget constraints decided who would be laid off based on “inverse seniority policies,” writes Matthew Kraft of Brown University in the Journal of Education Finance and Policy. But CMS took a different approach in 2008-09 and 2009-10. “Administrators did not uniformly lay off the most or least senior teachers,” Kraft writes, “but instead selected teachers who were previously retired, late hired, unlicensed, low performing or non-tenured.”

North Carolina’s ban on collective bargaining by public sector employees gave CMS the flexibility to take this approach.

In March 2009, then-Superintendent Peter Gorman recommended laying off more than 450 classroom teachers as part of CMS’ plan to close an $87 million shortfall. The school board adopted that proposal, as well as one in 2010 to eliminate 600 teacher jobs.

Kraft found that 58 percent of the teachers CMS did lay off had received “below standards” ratings on at least one evaluation category. The district also released teachers who had been on the job for more than 30 years and who were “double-dipping” with pensions and salaries.

Eighty-four percent of the teachers that CMS laid off during this period were probationary teachers with less than four years of experience. The job losses were more likely to hit high school teachers than those on elementary or middle school campuses, and they were heavily concentrated among foreign language and arts instructors. They were, however, spread evenly across CMS schools. Kraft did not find evidence of any sort of correlation between concentrated layoffs and factors such as school performance or demographics.

Interestingly, Kraft writes that CMS’ approach had an impact on student achievement. Seniority, he finds, had little correlation to student performance the following year. So, it didn’t particularly matter whether a classroom lost a 28-year veteran or a third-year beginning teacher.

What did matter, the study says, is teacher effectiveness. Laying off a more effective teacher caused students’ math performance the following school year to suffer greater than those students who lost a less effective teacher.

That may seem like common sense, but as Education Week notes, the way districts decide which teachers lose their jobs during layoff situations has been hotly contested. Supporters of using teacher effectiveness to inform layoff decisions say it’s the most obvious way to proceed, and one that’s in the best interest of children. (Indeed, Kraft’s study quotes Education Secretary Arne Duncan on this matter.) Opponents say such an approach could lead to favoritism and decisions designed to force out high-paying veteran teachers.

“CMS principals appear to have considered multiple teacher characteristics rather than defaulting to an inverse-seniority process or targeting the highest paid teachers as some have claimed would happen,” Kraft writes. In fact, had CMS simply laid off its most senior teachers, he says, the district would have had to eliminate an additional 160 positions to make up its budget shortfall.

Certainly, CMS isn’t facing a situation where it would have to reduce its teacher headcount at the levels it did during the Great Recession. Current state budget scenarios would have the district either gaining teachers or losing teacher assistants, so this approach would not be applicable to CMS’ present staffing situation. But Kraft’s analysis is interesting because it challenges conventional wisdom and thinking about how school districts approach “reduction in force” scenarios.

The district could have benefitted from using more data in the layoff process, Kraft says, highlighting another study that suggests taking into account value-added scores could have “further reduced the negative effect of layoffs.”  

Kraft concludes that while school districts shouldn’t use teacher effectiveness alone to decide who loses a job, it is an important consideration.

“Layoff policies that do not incorporate increasingly available measures of teacher effectiveness fail to consider all the best available information when making high-stakes decisions,” he writes. “However, exchanging one inflexible inverse layoff criterion for another will not provide districts with any discretion in navigating a complex process aimed at preventing a variety of negative consequences.”

Adam Rhew

Adam Rhew attended Beverly Woods Elementary, Carmel Middle, and South Mecklenburg High schools, all part of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. He earned a journalism and political science degree from UNC-Chapel Hill. He is a contributor to Southern Living, Charlotte magazine, and SBNation Longform, among other publications. Previously, Adam was an award-winning television and radio news reporter, with stops at stations in Chapel Hill, N.C., Charlottesville and Richmond, Va., and Charlotte, N.C.