Sunday, July 4, 2010

Thinking about teacher layoffs -- the logistics of staffing

Regarding Seyward Darby's recent article on teacher layoffs, you can find posts on why she doesn't understand economics here and here, posts on the questionable data and analysis behind her position here and here, posts pointing out the problems with the movement she endorses here and here (from Darby's own magazine) and an explanation of why the tenure 'reform' she champions would be unfair and unethical here.

But I don't believe anyone has pointed out what a logistic nightmare she wants to get us into.

Let's take the plan that Darby favors and throw in some reasonable numbers:

We take our already somewhat understaffed schools and lay off, let's say, 200,000* teachers selected based in part on some quality metric. We then run the schools severely understaffed for the next year or so until state revenues recover.

That 200K will be made up of three groups, the good, the bad and the better-than-nothing. The good are effective teachers who end up on the list through a combination of bad luck, bad metrics and bad administrators (go here to see how the last two can work together). The bad are teachers at the very bottom of the quality scale. The better-than-nothing are teachers who aren't all that effective but are probably still at least as good as most of the people you could get to replace them.

Given the flaws in our system of ranking teachers and the innate difficulty of the problem, a fair number of good teachers will end up on the list. Likewise, given the problems with recruiting teachers for problem schools, better-than-nothing teachers will continue to make up a large part of it.

The upshot of all this is that, given population growth and the high level of teacher attrition, you will need a substantial number of the people you laid off to come back if you are to have any hope of meeting staffing targets. This wasn't as much of a problem under last-in/first-out for a couple of reasons. First, the attrition rate for new teachers was so high that many of the teachers you laid off wouldn't have been there in a couple of years even if you hadn't let them go. Second, leaving under last-in/first-out carries minimal stigma. For those who really wanted to it was easy to get back into the field a year later.

Under the 'reform' system, there is a serious stigma and a deadly asymmetry of information problem. Keep in mind that administrators are basically stuck with new hires for a year (you try finding a certified replacement in, say, November). They know that a teacher laid off under that system might turn out to be first rate, but do they really want to take the chance?

Let's say 100,000 of the laid-off teachers fell into the need-them-later category. We have screwed these teachers out of contractually obligated compensation, scapegoated them for all the problems in the education system and made them unemployable in their chosen field. Would you come back under those circumstances?

Of course, the impact is not limited those laid off. Other than the satisfaction that comes with the job, the primary attraction of teaching is job security. For generations, teachers have self-selected to be risk-averse. Faculty rolls mainly consist of people who have willingly traded any significant chance of promotion for the stability to start a family, buy a house, and spend thirty or forty years doing something they're good at.

In an industry dependent on a very large number of highly skilled labourers, this is not a bad situation, but putting those bigger, long-term questions aside, what is likely to happen when the economy recovers and we try to start restaffing? We were having trouble maintaining adequate levels before the lay-offs. Then we permanently removed around 200,000 teachers from the pool (many of whom we would have liked to have had back later). Now we are trying to hold on to teachers after having unilaterally removed a valued part of their compensation and established the precedent that contractual obligations to educators don't need to be honored.

Of course, the reformers will assure you that they have a set of programs that will solve the retention problem, but keep in mind these are the same people who have been solving this problem for a decade and their track record is nothing if not consistent.

According to this NCES paper, we were hiring around 200,000 new teachers a year before the economy collapsed. That was a difficult and expensive proposition and we often had to compromise quality to make that number. Now think about doubling or tripling the number of vacancies.

This is not going to work out well.

*without the plan that Darby thinks might merit a veto, 100,000 to 300,000 teachers could lose their jobs.

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