As part of their 50th anniversary celebration, MIT Press has selected 50 influential articles published by them since 1969. "Teacher layoffs: An empirical illustration of seniority v. measures of effectiveness" by Donald Boyd, Hamilton Lankford, Susanna Loeb, and James Wyckoff is one of these selected few.
School districts are confronting difficult choices in the aftermath of the financial crisis. In prior recessions, districts often muddled through by imposing a combination of tax increases and expenditure cuts that avoided involuntary personnel reductions. Today, the financial imbalance in many school districts is so large that there is no alternative to teacher layoffs. In nearly all school districts, layoffs are currently determined by some version of teacher seniority. Yet, alternative approaches to personnel reductions may substantially reduce the harm to students from staff reductions relative to layoffs based on seniority. First, because salaries of novice teachers are often much lower than those of veteran teachers, seniority-based layoffs lead to more teachers being laid off to meet any given budget deficit, with the associated implications for class size. Second, because teachers vary substantially in their effectiveness, staff-reduction polices that do not consider effectiveness likely will allow some ineffective teachers to continue teaching while some more effective teachers lose their jobs. Third, because many districts have redesigned human resource policies to place greater emphasis on the recruitment and retention of effective teachers, they may have hired disproportionately more effective teachers over the last several years than in prior years. In such cases, seniority-based layoffs will be even more detrimental for quality. Finally, if, as in many districts, novice teachers are concentrated in schools serving low-achieving students and students in poverty, then a seniority-based layoff approach will disproportionately affect the students in those schools. As a result, many school district leaders and other policymakers are raising important questions about whether other criteria, such as measures of teacher effectiveness, should inform layoffs.