What happens when principals make teacher retention decisions?

When personnel costs make up more than 60 percent of total expenditures, school districts faced with budget shortfalls are sometimes forced to turn to layoffs as a cost saving strategy. In 2008, this was not uncommon among school districts across the country.
When you hear about teacher layoffs or a reduction in force (RIF), you typically think about the implementation of inverse-seniority policies. Using accounting terminology, the teachers that are the last in will be the first out (LIFO). But is this the best approach when the goal is to improve student performance and retain quality staff? How would the layoff process differ if principals were given the authority to use their own discretion when faced with the need to cut staff?
Matthew A. Kraft of Brown University examined data from layoffs in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg district of Charlotte, North Carolina, in the 2008‒09 and 2009‒10 school years to determine the implications of a RIF when principals were given a say in who would be laid off. The district identified candidates based on five general criteria: duplicative positions, enrollment trends, job performance, job qualifications, and length of service. However, the school board also granted the superintendent discretionary authority to make exceptions.
An analysis of the teachers laid off during this time period revealed some interesting results. More than 1,000 teaching positions were eliminated during the two-year period. Teachers with less seniority made up 84 percent of teacher layoffs. The other end of the experience spectrum also made the top of the list: Retire-rehires and teachers with more than 30 years of experience were also more likely to be let go.

However, when principals’ ratings of teachers was taken into consideration, 58 percent of teachers who received a “below standard” rating on any evaluation category were let go. Unlicensed and late-hired teachers also had a high probability of being laid off.
Kraft did not stop there. He also examined the changes in student achievement based on the characteristics of teachers being laid off. The teacher characteristics were based on their evaluation scores as well as the value they added to students’ scores on standardized tests for mathematics and English. Teacher seniority did not show a correlation with student achievement the following year. However, as one would guess, mathematics achievement decreased more in grades that lost an effective teacher compared to grades that lost an ineffective teacher.
While length of service was taken into consideration by the district, including performance data and allowing principals the discretion to determine who to lay off proved beneficial in this case. The findings from the study show the importance of prioritizing performance over seniority when districts are forced to lay teachers off to save money.