Performance-Based Layoffs Are a Bad Idea

The board of the San Antonio Independent School District voted Monday to lay off 132 teachers in a cost-cutting measure designed to save $11 million. Due to declining enrollment (mostly thanks to charter schools), the district faces a $31 million shortfall for the coming year. So it’s perfectly understandable that the board wanted to cut personnel.

Of course, that didn’t stop the uproar. The laid-off teachers showed up at the board meeting, and, unshackled without a job to worry about, let district officials have it. That, too, was unexpected. People who are fired aren’t usually very happy about it.

What is different these days is the source of that anger. Not so very long ago, decisions like these were made by seniority. It was cut and dry. If you needed to lay off 30 teachers, you pulled the seniority list out and counted 30 from the bottom. The lists could be found in teachers’ lounges, and every May you’d take a peek at where you were, listened for rumors about the number of positions your employer was looking to cut, and hoped you’d be spared. It might not have been perfect, but it was at least easily understood.

Plenty of people hated this policy, and they had good reason. Why should a shitty veteran teacher keep her job over a passionate and effective new one? That didn’t make sense, so reformers fought hard to replace “last-in, first out” policies with those based on performance. Not too many people complained.

They should have. Just as democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others, seniority-based layoffs are the worst way to cut teaching jobs, except for all the others.

San Antonio demonstrates why.

If you’re going to lay people off based on performance, then you better have an evaluation system that teachers believe is fair and consistent. And it sure sounds like San Antonio didn’t have that (and given how subjective and unreliable principal observations and student assessments are, I’m not sure it’s even possible to create one).

From an article in the San Antonio Express News:

“The union circulated a letter to the board written by Lisa Marie Gonzalez, who resigned two weeks ago from her position as associate principal of Lanier High School, in which she alleged that Lanier’s principal, Laura B. Cooper, in the fall gave administrators a list of teachers to “get rid of” and directed them to give those teachers negative evaluations. Potter, the union president, said the union heard similar stories Monday from assistant principals of two other high schools.”

It almost doesn’t matter whether those accusations are true. Because the trust between the district and its teachers is gone, and there is no reason to believe that district leaders made layoff decisions based on teacher quality instead of personal vendettas or money. The law makes it way too easy to do just that. Until that law is reversed, teachers across the country will continue to express the sentiment voiced by the SAISD teachers’ union president:

“Stop saying that the cuts are based on performance,” she told the board.

The Benefits of Certainty

Critics of protesting teachers often make the argument that teachers knew the pay when they took the job. They have a point. But here’s something teachers also used to know when they took a job: They were the first ones on the chopping block in the event of layoffs. There’s something to be said for that kind of certainty.

If seniority still mattered in San Antonio, district officials’ jobs would have been much easier. It is unlikely that teachers would be nearly as upset, and the motives of district leaders wouldn’t be called into question. Those teachers who didn’t get cut wouldn’t spend all of next year looking over their shoulders, afraid to commit the most minor of offenses out of fear of landing on some petty administrator’s hit list.

The district also wouldn’t have needed to ask teachers to resign instead of being laid off, because under the old system being laid off meant you were young and cuts had to be made. It wasn’t a blemish on your resume. Everyone understood how the game was played and a young, laid-off teacher could easily move to another district and continue their career.

Not so anymore. Now, with “performance”-based evaluations, the assumption that hiring districts must make is that teachers who were laid off from their previous districts must have sucked. Which, given how unreliable these evaluation systems are and how little proof there is that they actually identify low performers, is not only unfair to those teachers but bad for a system in desperate need of them.

It’s a classic case of be careful what you wish for. Districts now have the power they want to fire teachers who aren’t performing. The problem is that they also have the power they want to fire teachers they don’t like, or who cost them more money than they feel like paying.

And even if these districts behave nobly and do the very best they can to identify and retain their best teachers (and there’s really no reason to assume they do), their motives when they lay off teachers will always be questioned.

And that is a bad thing for everybody involved.

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