Arlen Vidal, a top-ranked math instructor at Liechty Middle School in Los… (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles…)
John H. Liechty Middle School opened in 2007 in Los Angeles' impoverished Westlake neighborhood with a seasoned principal, dozens of energetic young teachers and a mission to "reinvent education" in the nation's second-largest school district.
The students had come from some of the lowest-performing schools in the city. But by the end of the first year, their scores on standardized tests showed the most improvement in English among district middle schools and exceptional growth in math, according to a Times analysis.
"It was a dream job," said Monique Gascon, who taught English and history at Liechty during its first two years. "We had a lot of autonomy as teachers, we had a lot of support from administration and the kids were really learning. We could see the progress."
But when budget cuts came in the summer of 2009 — at the end of the school's second year — more than half of the teachers were laid off. Among those dismissed were Gascon and 16 others who ranked in the top fifth of district middle school instructors in boosting test scores, The Times' analysis found. Many were replaced by a parade of less effective teachers, including many short-term substitutes.
By the end of the last school year, Liechty had plummeted from first to 61st — near the bottom among middle schools — in raising English scores and fallen out of the top 10 in boosting math scores.
"Everything we worked those two years to instill is gone," said Amanda Uy, a math and science teacher who was laid off and now teaches part time at a private school. "It's really tragic."
Quality-blind layoffs are just one vestige of seniority rules introduced decades ago to promote fairness and protect teachers from capricious administrators. Enshrined in state law and detailed in teachers' union contracts, the prerogatives of seniority continue to guide many of the key personnel decisions made in public schools across the country, including pay and assignments. The effects are most keenly felt by students during layoffs.
The Times sought to measure the impact of about 2,700 seniority-based layoffs in the Los Angeles Unified School District in the last two years. It focused particularly on the performance of about 1,000 elementary and middle school teachers for whom math and English scores were available.
Among the findings:
Because seniority is largely unrelated to performance, the district has laid off hundreds of its most promising math and English teachers. About 190 ranked in the top fifth in raising scores and more than 400 ranked in the top 40%.
Schools in some of the city's poorest areas were disproportionately hurt by the layoffs. Nearly one in 10 teachers in South Los Angeles schools was laid off, nearly twice the rate in other areas. Sixteen schools lost at least a fourth of their teachers, all but one of them in South or Central Los Angeles.
Far fewer teachers would be laid off if the district were to base the cuts on performance rather than seniority. The least experienced teachers also are the lowest-paid, so more must be laid off to meet budgetary targets. An estimated 25% more teachers would have kept their jobs if L.A. Unified had based its cuts on teachers' records in improving test scores.
The Times analysis relied on a statistical approach known as "value-added," which estimates the effectiveness of teachers by crediting them for the gains students make over their performance in previous years on standardized tests in math and English. The approach is controversial because test scores alone are an imperfect measure of a teacher. Unions and some experts say it generates flawed results and encourages instructors to "teach to the test."
But the approach has been embraced by the Obama administration and an increasing number of school districts across the country as one way of bringing objectivity to otherwise subjective evaluations — usually based on brief and infrequent observations by administrators. Even supporters say value-added should be used with other approaches such as reviews by fellow teachers or analyses of student work.
An increasing number of policymakers, educators and experts say performance — whether measured by value-added or other methods — must be considered if students' needs are to take precedence.
"How can we be doing what's in the best interest of kids if we don't even consider a teacher's impact on kids when making key decisions?" asked Dan Goldhaber, director of the Center for Education Data and Research at the University of Washington.
The issue has gained momentum as tens of thousands of teachers nationally have been dismissed without regard to their abilities and research has established that veteran instructors on average are no better or worse than their less experienced colleagues.