Should seniority determine layoffs? Perhaps it’s time to change the narrative

While experience is important, a district's mission to honor diversity and effectiveness is often contradicted by its reliance on seniority when it comes to teacher layoffs.

Amidst a persistent national teacher shortage crisis, layoffs may be the last thing on your mind, district leader. But as September 2024 looms, many districts will have some tough decisions to make.

By the fall of next year, the pandemic relief funds districts have relied on will be gone for good. And in order to bring more teachers in, many have used these ESSER funds to create temporary incentives to recruit and retain, such as short-term pay raises and unique benefits. But the problem here is sustainability. If cuts must be made, how should you go about addressing them?

Traditionally, seniority has been one of the most dominant predictors for deciding who should be laid off. And according to a national study, that continues to be the case for nearly one-third (31%) of some of the largest districts in the country. But as the importance of workforce diversity and meeting students’ needs grow, perhaps it’s time those values be reflected in not only the hiring practices of districts but in firing as well.

The research, conducted by the National Council on Teacher Quality, argues that a district’s mission to honor diversity and effectiveness is often contradicted by its reliance on seniority when it comes to teacher layoffs.

“While districts have moved to include more criteria when layoff decisions are necessary, many districts, in particular those serving larger proportions of disadvantaged students, still rely mostly on seniority rather than on other measures, including teacher effectiveness, to determine which teachers to let go,” the report reads.

Considering the toll the pandemic has taken on student learning, the report adds, districts should reconsider their layoff practices to adequately promote equity and effectiveness in their teaching staff.

Layoff criteria: the numbers

But how exactly do some of the larger districts handle layoffs? The data consists of an analysis of 148 of the largest school districts in the country and the impact teacher layoffs have on the students and the workforce.

The most common factor for consideration is seniority, as mentioned previously. Using this policy, teachers who were the last to be hired are usually the first to be laid off, regardless of their effectiveness. “Experience” trumps all other measures. 46 districts within the sample (31%) use seniority “as the preponderant or sole criterion for teacher layoffs,” according to the report. Narrowing our scope to these forty-six districts alone, nearly two-thirds (28) of them only consider seniority.

Oppositely, exactly one-third (49 districts) use performance as the dominant factor for consideration for teacher layoffs. However, more districts over the last five years have shifted to a strategy that involves considering multiple criteria. including performance and/or seniority for letting teachers go. 42 districts in the sample reported using this policy.

“While we hope layoffs will not occur, districts should proactively prepare for this possibility by reviewing and reconsidering how their district identifies teachers for layoffs,” the report reads. “As students and schools continue to recover from the pandemic, layoff policies that put more effective teachers at risk may further hamper recovery efforts, and of particular concern, undercut the important strides districts have recently made to diversity their teacher workforce.”

More from DA: Question of the week with ChatGPT: How can we attract—and retain—teachers?

Micah Ward
Micah Ward
Micah Ward is a District Administration staff writer. He recently earned his master’s degree in Journalism at the University of Alabama. He spent his time during graduate school working on his master’s thesis. He’s also a self-taught guitarist who loves playing folk-style music.

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