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One for the Ages

Down in DC yesterday, Chancellor Michelle Rhee faced sharp questioning from the D.C. Council about her office’s handling of hirings and layoffs of teachers and other staff members over the past several months. The DC Public Schools hired 934 teachers during the spring and summer, with an average age of 32. Faced with a budget shortfall of $43.9 million in the 2010 budget, Rhee announced the layoffs of 266 teachers and other staff on October 2nd.

Critics wondered why this budget shortfall wasn’t identified earlier, before such widespread hiring, and some have questioned whether this pattern of hirings and layoffs was intentionally orchestrated to replace older, veteran teachers with younger, less-costly ones. DCPS, under Chancellor Rhee’s name, posted on October 7th a list of Frequently Asked Questions Concerning the Budget Shortfall and Staffing Reductions. One of the questions was: Did you target veteran teachers?

The response: “Absolutely not. This is rumor and completely unsubstantiated. Such a practice is not only illegal but morally reprehensible. In addition, since many, many thousands of DPS students benefit from being skillfully taught by veteran teachers, it would be ill-advised for us to ever take such an action.

  • The percentage of staff members over age 40 (a protected class) separated last week mirrors almost exactly the percentage of veterans within the DCPS work force.
  • Employees with three or fewer years of experience are more heavily represented in the pool of separated staff members than they are among total number of DCPS staff.”

That was the first version of the FAQ. Later, a revised version was posted, which removed the bullet points above, and substituted the following:

“The experience levels affected:

  • Only 7% of teachers affected had experience of 25 years or more
  • 54% of teachers affected had experience of 10 years or less
  • 39% of teachers affected were in their first five years of teaching
  • 17% of teachers affected were new hires; they were in their first year of teaching”

I’m no lawyer, but from my reading of the federal rules on equal employment opportunity, it’s actually not illegal to discriminate on the basis of experience. It is, however, illegal to discriminate on the basis of age, and in some occupations, such as teaching, there is an extremely high correlation between age and experience.

Rhee’s artful/deceptive response above doesn’t tell us if the individuals who were laid off differed in their experience profiles from those who were not. The fact that 46% of the teachers who were laid off had more than 10 years of experience needs to be compared to the proportion of teachers in the District overall with more than 10 years of experience to see if there was some kind of disparate treatment. Although Rhee has in interviews repeatedly pointed to the comparison between 7% and 17% to argue that new hires were more likely to be laid off than highly-experienced teachers, I would hope that she would understand that the data say nothing of the sort.

In any event, the revision to the document goes on to indicate that the average age of DCPS employees is 43, and the average age of those “separated” is 49. That is, the teachers who were laid off were, on average, six years older than the typical DCPS teacher. Is that a little or a lot?

I think it’s a lot. We don’t know the details of the age profile of DCPS teachers, but sociologist Richard Ingersoll drew a picture of the profile based on the 2003-04 Schools and Staffing Survey for a 2009 report by the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future. His analysis indicates that, in 2003-04, about 25% of DC teachers were 33 years old or younger, and 25% were 54 years old or older. The median age was 46. Working with his figure, I estimate the average age to be about 44, and the standard deviation of teachers’ age to be about 12.4.

What this suggests is that the 266 teachers and other educators who were laid off on October 2nd were about a half a standard deviation older than the average teacher in the DC public schools. A difference of this magnitude is extremely unlikely to have occurred by chance.

In a TV interview on local Fox affiliate WTTG on October 9th, Chancellor Rhee said, “I do, though, think that it’s troubling to hear when public officials are saying things that just aren’t true.” Me too, Chancellor Rhee. Me too.

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