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The Star-Ledger’s Tina Kelley has an excellent piece on the lack of Black and brown teachers in New Jersey. While our student body is increasingly diverse and research shows all students–particularly those of color—benefit from a diverse teaching cadre, New Jersey is tied with Delaware for the second-largest diversity gap between teachers and students nationwide. (California is in first place.) In the Garden State almost 60% of the state’s student population is Hispanic, Black, or Asian but only 17% of teachers are. This matters: “education research shows that more students of color experience higher graduation rates, test scores, attendance rates, and enrollment in gifted programs and higher education when they have same-race or same-ethnicity teachers. They also experience lower suspension rates.”
Kelley does a great job detailing all the reasons why NJ is failing to recruit a diverse teaching corps. Here’s one point I’d like to add: because New Jersey retains the policy that says when we lay off teachers we do so in order of seniority—also known as LIFO for “last in, first out”—we drive out teachers who are disproportionately Black and brown. That’s because they are more likely to be early-career educators, i.e., with less seniority, and so when lays-offs are necessary due to budget cuts or sagging enrollment, LIFO sacrifices younger and more diverse teachers, regardless of their instructional effectiveness.
Let’s look at how this plays out:
- From the National Center for Teacher Quality: “Relying exclusively on seniority threatens the twin goals of diversity and effectiveness. While districts have moved to include more criteria when layoffs decisions are necessary, many districts, in particular those serving larger proportions of disadvantaged students, still rely mostly on seniority rather than other measures, including teacher effectiveness, to determine which teachers to let go.”
- From “Retaining Teacher of Color: Evidence-Based Practices”: As the increase in teachers of color peaked to nearly 20% in 2019—relegated predominantly to high poverty schools— policies such as last in first out (LIFO) subject these teachers to being the first to go when budget cuts occur.
- From a Harvard University paper: “LIFO layoff policies are inequitable, lead to more total job losses, and undercut efforts to recruit talented and diverse teachers.”
- From EdTrust: “[D]ue to the widespread contract stipulation that teachers who were most recently hired are laid off first, all the work districts have done to increase the percentages of BIPOC teachers in recent years may be undone.”
In other words, LIFO is diametrically opposed to what’s best for students; this paper describes the “broad consensus across academic disciplines that access to same-race/ethnicity teachers is a critical resource for supporting the educational experiences and outcomes of Black, Hispanic, and other students of color.” And in less than two years many U.S. school districts, including those in New Jersey, will have to lay off teachers because all the extra cash ($190 billion) from the Biden Administration’s American Rescue Plan will dry up in 2024 and we’ll hit what some refer to as a “fiscal cliff.” Add to that decreasing enrollment and parents’ renewed appetite for alternatives to traditional district schools, says Mike Petrillli, and “school districts will have no choice but to lay off a bunch of people.” Or, as Phyllis Jordan, editorial director at FutureEd say, “They are now hiring teachers that they can’t pay after three years.
The 25 states that allow school leaders to decide lay-offs based on instructional effectiveness will be fine. But states like New Jersey that indulge union-driven LIFO policies will find that “bunch of people districts won’t be able to pay” will be disproportionately Brown and Black.
What can we do about it? Well, duh, get rid of LIFO. But we tried that in 2012 during the State Legislature’s attempt to reform teacher tenure. While the bill proposal eliminated LIFO, seniority-based lay-offs were put back in because NJEA said they “turn teachers into serfs.” (Cory Booker said back then that any attempt at tenure reform that maintains LIFO is “monumentally absurd.”)
Yet there is a step we can take short of completely eliminating LIFO. Here’s the recommendation from the National Council on Teacher Quality:
Require that districts consider teacher effectiveness as the most important factor in determining which teachers are laid off during reductions in force.
New Jersey should give districts the flexibility to determine their own layoff policies, but it should do so within a framework that ensures that teacher effectiveness is the most influential factor. Further, although it may be useful for New Jersey to consider seniority among other criteria, the state should also consider performance so that it does not sacrifice effective teachers while maintaining low performers.
In other words, keep LIFO but let districts have just a little bit of latitude in whom they lay off when we stand at that inevitable fiscal cliff. Otherwise the complexion of New Jersey teachers will continue to diverge sharply from their students.
And that’s bad for everyone, especially children.