New York City's fiscal mess means that massive budget cuts are simply unavoidable. Since teacher salaries represent a huge portion of the budget, it's always been clear that some teachers will need to go. According to Mayor Bloomberg, as many as 15,000 of them may be subject to emergency layoffs if state and federal aid are not forthcoming.
But contrary to what we're now hearing from the teachers union, losing some public school teachers isn't necessarily harmful. What hurts is when we slash effective teachers. And unfortunately, the current system could force the city to do just that.
Some organizations view revenue slowdowns as opportunities to trim fat. Struggling private-sector companies often let go their lowest-performing employees and replace them with better workers when things turn around. Or they might cut costs by laying off long-serving employees with bloated salaries.
Unfortunately, such sensible approaches are foreign to public schools. Even after recent reforms - which have chipped away at seniority rules - the teachers' contract leaves little discretion over which educators can be let go when times are tough.
As a result, teachers who have been around for a while, even those performing poorly, have nothing to fear from the upcoming cuts. Younger teachers, on the other hand, who have been hired by the thousands in recent years by an increasingly aggressive Department of Education, are squarely in the budget crosshairs - even if they are doing an exemplary job and would have a bright future in the school system.
That's too bad for kids, because we know that who teaches them matters a lot. The best estimates indicate that the difference for a student being taught by a good or bad teacher amounts to about an additional grade level's worth of learning at the end of the school year.
Contrary to what you may hear from experienced teachers' representatives, however, there is basically no relationship between seniority and teaching ability. A wide and scarcely disputed body of research finds that teachers' additional experience stops paying off after about year three.
In New York City, the contrast could be particularly stark, because the quality of people entering teaching here has improved substantially in recent years. A study by the Urban Institute found that today's city public school hires have more attractive attributes - such as scoring higher on certification exams - than the hires of old.
This increase in new-teacher quality owes primarily to the expansion of alternative certification, particularly through New York City Teaching Fellows and Teach for America, which open the door to enter teaching for those who did not graduate from traditional schools of education. What's more, the Urban Institute researchers found that these new hires helped reduce the gap in credentials between teachers in high- and low- poverty schools.
Firing by seniority has one final drawback: it requires firing more teachers than necessary. We pay public school teachers almost entirely based on the number of years they have been in the classroom and the number of advanced degrees they hold. Newly hired teachers make modest salaries - between $45,000 and $60,000 a year. After several years in the classroom, teachers can earn much higher salaries, even surpassing $100,000. Cutting jobs exclusively from the bottom up means dropping more teachers to save the same amount of money.
Too bad, say the teachers' unions. The contract demands that the city's corps of new and in many cases better qualified teachers must go first.
What is to be done? The mayor is looking to Albany and Washington for more funds to help save some jobs, but even that's just a short term solution. To solve the bigger problem we need to change the way that we employ public school teachers in New York and across the nation - and make layoff judgments based on quality, not seniority. Otherwise, every round of firings will do maximum damage to city schoolchildren.
Original Source: http://www.nydailynews.com/opinions/2009/02/04/2009-02-04_mass_teacher_layoffs__seniority_rules__b.html