With the United States suddenly in a recession, school districts will be thinking seriously about reducing their teaching workforces. On average, salaries account for about 80 percent of district spending, so layoffs may be an inevitable step when budgets must be cut.
For many, budget crises and potential layoffs may feel all too familiar. The long and severe 2008 recession led many districts to let teachers go. Even more teachers received a reduction-in-force or RIF notice-an advance warning issued to teachers whose jobs are at risk. Two federally funded district bailouts helped districts rescind many of the RIF notices, but still, one estimate indicated nearly 300,000 school employees lost their jobs.
During the 2008 recession, most districts generally put novice teachers at the top of the list for layoffs because leaders were following seniority rules baked into collective bargaining agreements or state statutes. Since 2008, however, 17 states have either prohibited basing layoffs on seniority alone or have mandated that districts take teacher performance into account.
What can we expect this time around given that change? Research shows that teacher layoffs generally hurt schools and student performance, but that strategically choosing which teachers will lose their jobs may mitigate the negative effects.
The bad news first: Teacher layoffs and even the threat of layoffs can depress student-test scores in several ways. A team led by Michigan State University scholar Katharine Strunk studied teachers who were threatened with RIF notices, though ultimately, the notices were rescinded or the teachers were rehired. Strunk and her team found that those teachers often became less effective after they got the notices as measured by their contributions to gains in student-test scores. The researchers attributed the change to the teachers' greater stress and their reduced commitment to jobs that might be taken away.
If layoffs in fact occur, class sizes typically rise-and that, too, can in some instances lead to diminished student learning. And laying off teachers by eliminating novices first means even greater increases to class size than if a mix of experienced and inexperienced teachers are given pink slips. Novices are generally paid less, so more have to lose their jobs to meet budget targets.
A third way that layoffs or the threat of layoffs affect students is through teacher mobility. Layoffs create obvious staff change, but even the threat of job losses tends to increase turnover, as teachers leave before they can be laid off.
Research led by Matthew Ronfeldt of the University of Michigan showed that teacher turnover affects the teachers who remain in the school, perhaps due to changes in routines and responsibilities. Student-test scores in both math and English/language arts suffer as a result, with stronger negative effects in schools serving low-income students and students of color. Still other research shows that when a teacher switches grades, another common occurrence during periods of teacher mobility, her students' test scores decrease, likely because the teacher must teach new content at a different developmental level.
This essay is the eighth in a series that aims to put the pieces of research together so that education decisionmakers can evaluate which policies and practices to implement.
The conveners of this project-Susanna Loeb, the director of Brown University's Annenberg Institute for School Reform, and Harvard education professor Heather Hill-have received grant support from the Annenberg Institute for this series.
To suggest other topics for this series or join in the conversation, use #EdResearchtoPractice on Twitter.
Overall, then, teacher layoffs-even the prospect of them—are likely to negatively affect students. And these negative effects may be the greatest in the most challenging schools. Layoffs from the 2008 recession disproportionately occurred in schools that serve low-income, high-need students. Such schools are more heavily staffed by first-year teachers, who were much more likely to be laid off.
Last-in, first-out policies not only burden the schools with the greatest challenges and increase class size the most, they are also not a good approach to keeping the best teachers. While more experienced teachers are more effective, on average, than less experienced teachers, many novice teachers are excellent. In fact, experience explains only a little of the difference in effectiveness across teachers.
And here's the good news. While recession-induced layoffs are bound to be detrimental, schools and districts can reduce the negative effects by protecting their greatest-need schools and their most effective teachers.
First, districts can protect schools that have high existing rates of turnover or large proportions of at-risk students either by exempting those schools from layoffs altogether or by requiring layoffs to be equal across schools. Following a lawsuit, the Los Angeles Unified school district adopted such a policy in the middle of the 2008 recession and succeeded in sharply reducing teacher turnover in 45 schools.
Second, districts can also protect students by using information about teacher performance when making decisions about which teachers to lay off. Two recent simulations showed that basing layoffs on teachers' effectiveness in promoting student learning would result in fewer layoffs to meet budget targets and better teachers for many students.
A 2015 paper by Matthew Kraft of Brown University describes how the Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools in North Carolina laid off teachers using several criteria, including enrollment trends, principal-assigned performance ratings, and length of service. Layoffs were still concentrated among untenured teachers (84 percent of those laid off), but of the teachers the district let go, 58 percent had below-standard performance ratings. Holding the number of layoffs constant, the analysis showed that the discretionary layoffs saved the district about $5 million more than would have been the case under a last-in, first-out scenario and boosted student achievement above what it would have been in that case.
Of course, it would be better to prevent layoffs than mitigate their effects. In that regard, state and federal government action can be powerful. The number of teachers laid off in this recession could be reduced, as it was in 2008, by federal aid. That kind of aid would parallel the assistance already given to private-sector workers.
But should layoffs occur, the greatest-needs schools may benefit from special consideration. And students will be harmed less if administrators use measures of teacher effectiveness, among other criteria, to determine which teachers stay and which go.
Heather C. Hill is a professor of education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and studies teacher quality, teacher professional learning, and instructional improvement. Her broader interests include educational policy and social inequality. Susanna Loeb is a professor of education and of public affairs at Brown University and the director of the university's Annenberg Institute for School Reform. She studies education policy, and her interests include social inequality. Eric Taylor is an assistant professor of education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and studies the economics of education, with an interest in employer-employee interactions between schools and teachers.