Research vs. Conventional Wisdom II: Teacher Jobs Lost During the Great Recession

Research findings about teachers and teacher labor markets sometimes seem to defy conventional wisdom. Dan Goldhaber, director of CALDER at the American Institutes for Research and the Center for Education Data & Research at the University of Washington, and Katharine Strunk, associate professor of education and policy at the University of Southern California, explore teacher job loss in this second of three Education Week guest blog posts.

In today's "Research vs. the Conventional Wisdom" installment, Katharine Strunk joins me to grapple with the Great Recession's effects on schools and the teacher labor market—especially the job losses suffered by teachers. The conventional wisdom is that budget cuts after the 2008 downturn cost hundreds of thousands of teachers their jobs. Education Secretary Arne Duncan was quoted in the New York Times at the time saying that the nation was flirting with an "education catastrophe."

So, looking back, were recessionary layoffs indeed "catastrophic"? It depends on the school system in question and who you ask (teachers who suffered job losses and their students would clearly believe it so). The empirical question is too large to answer with a few scattered facts or studies, but results from our fresh look at teacher layoffs using data from the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) and Washington State paint a different picture than the dire proclamations in many media stories.

In our study (co-authored with Nate Brown and David Knight), we wanted to find out what happened to teachers who received a reduction in force (RIF) notice or who were working in schools where their colleagues were getting notices. Note that we said "received a reduction in force notice," not "were laid off or lost their job." Teachers first receive a RIF notice, usually sometime in the early spring. Closer to the end of the school year, RIF-ed teachers then are told whether or not they are laid off—implying that they are one of the teachers the district must remove from their jobs for budgetary reasons. However, some of these laid off teachers are then hired back for the next school year—so only a subset of laid off teachers actually lose their jobs. The difference between being RIF-ed, laid off or losing a job not only matters a great deal to teachers (a RIF is the threat of job loss, a layoff significantly raises the probability that teachers will lose their jobs, and losing a job means, well... losing a job and not returning to the district as a teacher of record), but also to school and district administrators who manage staffing changes.

The importance of the distinction between RIF notices, layoffs, and job losses is also one of the startling findings from our study: most classroom teachers who received a RIF notice were not actually laid off and did not actually lose their jobs. For instance, in Washington in 2008-09—the year with the state's deepest budget cuts—only 248 of the 1,914 teachers who received a RIF notice were actually laid off. That's 13 percent. Most of those in Washington who were laid off did actually lose their jobs, but we are still talking about less than half of one percent of the teacher workforce.

The story in LAUSD is similar to Washington. In 2008-09, 4,876 teachers received a RIF notice, 1,812 of these teachers were laid off, and 1,356 actually lost their jobs. But the LAUSD story looked different from Washington in that teachers who were laid off often found jobs the next year in the district. For instance, in 2009-10, 2,181 teachers received RIF notices. Of these, 355 teachers were laid off, but only 143 were not teaching in the next school year in LAUSD. Thus, in the end, about 93 percent of the 2,181 teachers who received an initial RIF notice remained employed in LAUSD.

Yes, 2009-10 was an anomalous year. Not only did LAUSD work with its union to enact salary concessions in order to save teachers' jobs, but it was also the year that LAUSD and Washington received federal stimulus funds from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. But temporary stop-gaps and funding relief for schools dried up over the next year or two and the number of layoffs changed little. For instance, in 2010-11, nearly 87 percent of LAUSD teachers who received an initial RIF notice and over 60 percent of teachers who received a layoff notice were retained.

All this is not to suggest that we shouldn't care about teachers getting RIF notices, being laid off, or losing their jobs. The psychological and morale consequences of job loss or even the threat of job loss must be reckoned with. And, as our study shows, receiving a RIF notice itself creates churn as teachers are shuffled (or shuffle themselves) across schools. This can happen, for instance, because many districts use a seniority-based system to determine which teachers are targeted for layoffs, and these teachers could be teaching in schools with growing student populations. In such cases districts would need to shuffle positions to rebalance across the school system so as to avoid having disproportionately large (or small) classes in particular schools. Other research confirms that this churn of teachers in and out of schools takes a toll on student achievement.

Currently, six times as many teachers receive RIF notices as eventually lose their jobs. So, why do so many more teachers receive RIF notices than eventually lose their jobs in budget squeezes? The gap between RIF notices and job losses is due largely to state mandates requiring districts to notify teachers of any potential layoff months in advance. Closing this gap could be as simple as revising state and local policies so RIF slips come out later in the year, when budgets are easier to assess.

This recommendation's downside is that some teachers would be laid off much closer to the start of the new school year. But there are also costs to having that many teachers in limbo for months, including the churn and potential exits that result from RIF-induced layoff threat. Moreover, the resulting teacher shuffle creates particular havoc for schools that serve the neediest students, given the prevalent use of seniority in the layoff process. Redrawing the lines here is tricky, but surely we can strike a better balance between giving teachers fair warning and creating a stable environment that helps students.

Returning to the theme of these blogs, our research findings show that the reality of teacher job loss under the Great Recession conflicts with the conventional wisdom. Knowing this will hopefully reorient our thinking to focus on how to improve a layoff process that likely does more harm to schools, teachers, and students than is actually necessary in order to make the tough budget cuts that can be necessary in an economic downturn.