The Instability in Education

Many people enter education because of its stability.  They reason that there will always be a need for schools and educators.  However, school authorities across the nation are warning thousands of teachers that they could lose their jobs in June, raising the possibility that America’s public schools may see the most extensive layoffs of their teaching staffs in decades.

Though many of the warnings may not be acted upon — school systems, their budget outlook unclear, routinely overstate their likely layoffs at this time of year — when layoffs do occur, they cause a chaotic annual reshuffling of staff members.

Thousands of teachers are forced to change schools, grade levels or subjects, creating a chronic instability that educators call “teacher churn.”

Much of the public debate over teacher layoffs has concerned the question of how layoffs are decided, with sharp divisions between politicians and union leaders over the seniority-based layoff methods stipulated in union contracts. Many argue that the rules rob schools of the talented young teachers who are the first to be let go. Union officials say that without such protections, more senior teachers would be let go first to save money.

But that the consequences of sweeping teacher layoffs are often overlooked in the policy debate. School superintendents say layoffs hurt school cohesion, undermine student achievement and rupture ties with parents.

School districts from Rhode Island to California have begun notifying teachers of layoffs. State laws or union contracts require notifications in the spring to teachers whose contracts might not be renewed, but because most school budgets are just estimates in March, districts routinely exaggerate the likely cuts, just to be safe.

School finance experts say widespread teacher layoffs are more likely this year. The billions that Congress approved in 2009 and 2010 to forestall school layoffs is mostly spent. And, because their 401(k)’s have dwindled during the recession, older teachers are delaying retirement.

“But in the years after the 2004-5 layoffs, achievement leveled off, and it eventually dropped. In 2009, school authorities invited the Council of the Great City Schools, a nonprofit that represents urban districts, to visit Cleveland to diagnose problems.The council’s report concluded that teacher layoffs, carried out by seniority, had stripped Cleveland’s specialty schools of key teachers. A Spanish-English immersion school had lost its dual language teachers; a school for gifted children had lost teachers who had special training to work with those students.

Cleveland’s seniority layoff provisions “enforced an untenable bumping system during budget cuts,” the report concluded.

“The churn caused by layoffs can be extremely disruptive and hurt student achievement,” said Michael Casserly, the council’s executive director. “And conditions are ripe for disruptions to be dramatic this year.”

“I’m getting nauseous just remembering,” said Barbara Byrd-Bennett, who as the Cleveland superintendent in the last decade had to make draconian teacher cuts. “The result was devastating for our classrooms.”