On Monday, the Washington Post’s PostPartisan blog published an opinion piece attempting to dispel myths about the “teacher layoff crisis.” Opinion writer Charles Lane tells readers not to believe the hype about the drastic consequences of 100,000 to 300,000 teachers losing their jobs in the coming school year. He says a proposed $23 billion Education Jobs Fund pending in Congress, which would help states avoid teacher lay offs, is both unnecessary and not enough to stimulate the economy anyway. He claims that even if 300,000 teachers lost their jobs, the student-teacher ratio in the country would only increase from 15.3 students per teacher to 16.6 students per teacher, a seemingly insignificant jump. But his analysis oversimplifies the situation surrounding teacher layoffs, painting a rosier picture of student-teacher ratios than may be the reality in many schools.
Lane is correct in stating that current estimates of potential teacher layoffs – ranging from 100,000 to 300,000 – are shaky at best. These numbers are based on worst-case scenario counts of teachers that have been pink slipped, but have not officially lost their jobs. Typically, schools pink slip far more teachers than will actually be let go in case something drastic really happens. Additionally, these numbers do include non-instructional staff like administrators, janitors, and bus drivers, further obscuring the relationship between the number of actual layoffs and the direct impact they will have on classrooms.
However, Lane does not account for the variation in potential teacher layoffs or the variation in student-teacher ratios in classrooms across the country. In many states, the situation is far more dire than Lane makes it seem. For example, the budget situation in California is particularly challenging right now, meaning that as many as 36,000 teachers have been pink slipped. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the average student-teacher ratio in California in 2008 was 20.8 students per teacher. If 36,000 teachers are let go, the student-teacher ratio in the state will increase to 23.6 students per teacher, an increase of nearly three students.
In New Jersey, current student-teacher ratios are much lower – 12.4 students per teacher. But the state’s projected budget deficit suggests that as many as 9,950 teachers could lose their jobs in the coming year. Such a change would increase the state’s average student teacher ratio by more than 1 student to 13.6 students per teacher. In Virginia, where 10,000 teachers could potentially lose their jobs, the student-teacher ratio could increase from 17.1 to 19.9 students per teacher, almost three students and more than twice the national number Lane cites.
Teacher layoffs also do not affect schools within a state or even a district evenly. According to teacher seniority rules in place in most schools, the teachers that were most recently hired are let go first. This means that new, or less experienced teachers are laid off first during budget cuts. Typically, more experienced, tenured teachers work in high-income schools because those schools are perceived to be more attractive teaching placements. As a result, less-experienced teachers tend to work in low-income schools. Because the less-experienced teachers will be laid off first due to seniority rules, low-income schools will bear the majority of the burden of the teacher lay offs. The students in these schools, who often benefit the most from low student-teacher ratios, will be disproportionately effected by teacher lay offs.
When viewed nationally, an across-the-board increase in student-teacher ratios from 15.3 to 16.6 seems insignificant, as such large aggregations often do. But the reality in some states and in low income schools could be much worse than Lane acknowledges. While it’s impossible to know how many teachers will lose their jobs in the coming school year, it’s imperative that we keep the discussion about the impact of these lay offs as honest as possible. Skimming over the details, as Lane does with student-teacher ratios, distorts the debate and could result in some truly negative consequences for our students and schools.
It is also important to note that student-teacher ratios and class size are two different measures. In 2008, the average national class size was 20.0 students in elementary schools and 23.4 students in high schools.