Reformy Disconnect: “Quality Based” RIF?

Posted on February 16, 2011

I addressed this point previously in my post on cost-effectiveness of quality based layoffs, but it was buried deep in the post.

Reformers are increasingly calling for quality based layoffs versus seniority based layoffs, as if a simple dichotomy. Sounds like a no brainer when framed in these distorted terms.

I pointed out in the previous post that if the proposal on the table is really about using value-added teacher effect estimates versus years of service, we’re really talking about the choice between significantly biased and error prone – largely random – layoffs versus using years of service. It doesn’t sound as much like a no brainer when put in those terms, does it? While reformers might argue that seniority based layoffs are still more “error prone” than effectiveness rating layoffs, it is actually quite difficult to determine which, in this case, is more error prone. Existing simulation studies identifying value-added estimates as the less bad option, use value-added estimates to determine which option is better. Circular logic (as I previously wrote)?

We’re having this policy conversation about layoffs now because states are choosing (yes choosing, not forced, not by necessity) to slash aid to high need school districts that are highly dependent on state aid, and will likely be implementing reduction in force (RIF) policies. That is, laying off teachers. So, reformy pundits argue that they should be laying off those dead wood teachers – those with bad effectiveness ratings, instead of those young, energetic highly qualified ones.

So, here are the basic parameters for quality-based RIF:

1. We must mandate test-score based teacher effectiveness ratings as a basis for teacher layoffs.

2. But, we acknowledge that those effectiveness ratings can at best be applied to less than 20% of teachers in our districts, specifically teachers of record – classroom teachers – responsible for teaching math and reading in grades 3 to 8 (4 to 8 if only annual assessment data)

3. Districts are going to be faced with significant budget cuts which may require laying off around 5% or somewhat more of their total staff, including teaching staff.

4. But, districts should make efforts to layoff staff (teachers) not responsible for the teaching of core subject areas.

Is anyone else seeing the disconnect here? Yeah, there are many levels of it, some more obvious than others. Let’s take this from the district administrator’s/local board of education perspective:

“Okay, so I’m supposed to use effectiveness measures to decide which teachers to lay off. But, I only have effectiveness measures for those teachers who are supposed to be last on my list for lay offs? Those in core areas. The tested areas. How is that supposed to work?”

Indeed the point of the various “quality based layoff” simulations that have been presented (the logic of which is problematic) is to layoff teachers in core content areas and rely on improved average quality of core content teachers over time to drive system wide improvements. These simulations rely on heroic assumptions of a long waiting list of higher quality teacher applicants just frothing at the mouth to take those jobs from which they too might be fired within a few years due to random statistical error (or biased estimates) alone.

That aside, reduction in force isn’t about choosing which teachers to be dismissed so that you can replace them with better ones. It’s about budgetary crisis mode and reduction of total staffing costs. And reduction in force is not implemented in a synthetic scenario where the choice only exists to lay off either core classroom teachers based on seniority, or core classroom teachers based on effectiveness ratings (the constructed reality of the layoff simulations). Reduction in force is implemented with consideration for the full array of teaching positions that exist in any school or district. “Last in, first out” or LIFO as reformy types call it, does not mean ranking all teachers systemwide by experience and RIF-ing the newest teachers regardless of what they teach, or the program they are in. Specific programs and positions can be cut, and typically are.

And it is unlikely that local district administrators in high need districts would, or even should, look first to cut deeply into core content area teachers. So, a 5% staffing cut might be accomplished before ever cutting a single teacher for whom an effectiveness rating occurs – or very few. So, in the context of RIF, layoffs actually based on effectiveness ratings are a drop in the bucket.

So now I’m confused. Why is this such a pressing policy issue here and now? Does chipping away at seniority based provisions really have much to do with improving the implementation of RIF policies? Perhaps some are using the current economic environment and reformy momentum to achieve other long-run objectives?