Michelle Rhee and seniority-based layoffs: Breaking the status quo?

An editorial in today’s Wall Street Journal praised Washington, D.C.’s new teacher contract, which eliminates the “first in, last out” system of teacher layoffs common across the country. When it comes time to hand out pink slips, new teachers are traditionally let go and old teachers are kept on — regardless of teacher effectiveness or performance.

“Seniority used to drive all kinds of decisions, including who was hired or laid off,” D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee told the Journal. “Now that will be determined by performance and by quality.”

Rhee herself has suggested that other school systems, including the New York City public schools, should learn from her success. Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, disagrees that her model is readily applicable to New York City. But the Journal appears to be on Rhee’s side.

“School reforms can sometimes seem like a Sisyphean task, but D.C.’s breakout on teacher tenure shows that the status quo can be broken,” the editorial reads. “Let’s hope more big city mayors and chancellors have the courage of Ms. Rhee’s and Mayor [Adrian] Fenty’s convictions.”

The new rules in D.C. might be best understood as part of a larger trend rather than an isolated event though. As school budget cuts soar and districts around the country are letting teachers go in massive quantities, the long-established practice of seniority-based firing is being called into question by many.

Tim Daly, president of The New Teacher Project, thinks that eventually all districts will look at multiple variables to determine which teachers to keep and which ones to let go.

“I don’t think it’s necessarily that the concept of tenure will go away,”  Daly said. “What is changing rapidly is that there must be evidence of strong performance to continue a teacher’s employment.”

Colorado made headlines this spring as it passed sweeping new legislation that would change how tenure was earned by teachers – while also making it possible to take tenure away. California has considered similar legislation, and several states are now taking a closer look at their tenure systems.

The Indianapolis Public Schools recently took a small step toward changing how it lays teachers off. Although first- and second-year teachers will still be the first up for layoffs, other factors can be taken into consideration as well. If layoffs must extend to teachers with up to five years of experience, a point system — which encompasses instructional skills, classroom management and seniority — will be used to make decisions.

As with most changes to the contracts of government employees, eliminating seniority-based layoffs is a deeply political issue. Attempts to change the “status quo,” as the Journal refers to it, can be slow in coming in part because of teacher union resistance. Still, a study by The New Teacher Project revealed that teachers might not be universally opposed to a new approach to layoffs. In fact, many of them support it.

The organization surveyed over 9,000 teachers in two large urban districts and found that 74 percent of the teachers — and 64 percent of teachers who had tenure — thought additional factors should be considered when determining who to lay off.

Sarah Butrymowicz