Thoughts on Teacher Seniority and “Last In, First Out”

Many union contracts stipulate that when school districts lay-off teachers because of budget cuts or shifting student populations, they must adhere to "last in, first out"–less experienced and non-tenured teachers are let go first. With Mayor Bloomberg threatening to lay-off thousands of New York City teachers, fighting LIFO has become a major priority for education reform philanthropists. The policy has also become a very popular media bogeyman.

Here's my take: LIFO isn't a great way to reduce the size of a teaching force. Teaching is a creative and intellectually-demanding profession; many of its best practioners are seasoned veterans, but some of its superstars are newbies, whether they are fresh out of college or mid-career changers. 

The problem is that it isn't so easy to determine who is great at any given job, who is average, and who is terrible.

Consider analytical journalism: Would you want to lay-off young hotshot Nate Silver from the New York Times or establishment darling David Brooks? Your answer to that question would depend on what kind of political analysis you enjoy, data-driven or anecdotal, and whether you prefer to read online or in print. Conservatives might prefer Brooks, while liberals might choose Silver. The PR department might love Brooks because he's famous, while the online advertising department might push to keep Silver, whose blog has a devoted following. In other words, reasonable people would disagree. 

In education, reasonable people have been disagreeing, for decades and decades, about how to define and measure good teaching. LIFO has become standard practice because in the absence of such agreement, it has one great advantage: LIFO can be applied completely objectively. 

Now, there are all kinds of efforts underway across the country to create fairer, more accurate teacher evaluation and professional development systems. In Colorado, the "Great Teachers and Leaders Law" relies heavily on student test-score data to measure teacher effectiveness. Linda Darling-Hammond has proposed a far more rigorous tenure-granting process that would include mentoring and coaching for new teachers. New York state will be implementing an evaluation system in which state tests, district assessments, and peer and administrator observations are all taken into account.

But the bottom line is that ending LIFO now, before any of these new evaluation systems are implemented, would be putting the cart (effectiveness-based layoffs) before the horse (a reliable system to measure effectiveness). Under the current evaluation system used in New York City, for example, teachers are simply classifed as "satisfactory" or "unsatisfactory." Many teachers have been denied useful feedback on their practice and others have been treated completely unfairly, as this discouraging testimony from Queens teacher Peter Lamphere makes clear.

The New York Post is angry that Arne Duncan rolled back plans to deliver a tough, anti-LIFO speech, but I commend him for approaching the issue with caution–it's a complicated one. I think what New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has said is basically right: "There should be objective fair criteria that don’t penalize seniority. But [I] also understand that there are other criteria to take into consideration. And that’s a conversation worthy having in my opinion.”

4 thoughts on “Thoughts on Teacher Seniority and “Last In, First Out”

  1. weboy

    …but of course “objectivity” is the problem, after all: the Cuomo quote strikes me as a good indication why nothing is going to change anytime soon (not to mention why Cuomo, in his mealy mouthed way, manages to say bland things that appeal to next to no one).

    Having worked in human resources and seen hard choices in personnel management, seniority is a big part of any discussion mostly because of two things: institutional memory and acquisition of skills. Both, in some ways, are overrated – skills can be learned, institutional memory isn’t necessarily improving a business. Teachers do learn things over time in a classroom setting. They can become better teachers. They can also get worse.

    Seniority, as a standard, isn’t objective. It’s subjectively assuming that time spent in a job is the most important criteria, irrespective of others. And it seems to me unions like this idea because, in large part, power accrues over time. Politicians like it because experience is assumed to improve excellence (and because it feels a lot like incumbency). But a pure seniority standard, most of all, says we don’t trust administrators – principals and school boards – to do the work of figuring out who contributes the best work, in and out of the classroom. That, I think, is a good indication of the real problem Americans have with teachers’ unions: there’s a sense in which the union uses its clout most to be as unsupervised as possible. LIFO isn’t objective; it’s a system which strips your boss of the kind of subjective criteria which would suggest, well, supervision. The complication, really, is the nature of public, government run education, which suggests that should be some sort of distant “objective” way to think about job evaluations, when, really, subjective, more human assessments would probably yield better results – better for the worker, better for the product (teaching), and better for the consumer (students and parents and a community at large). “Objectivity” then, is a false goal… and like so many strange, false goals in our education debate, it’s really the problem, not the solution.

  2. Chris Grant

    LIFO is not a measure of success on the job but a measurement of time, exclusively. Corporations have been better at separating time in the organization (seniority) and abilities (title/salary). Seniority translates to “entitlement”. As an extreme example, he entitlement mentality of Greece’s government and population nearly wiped out Greece’s economy.

    Its hard to justify something-for-nothing. This is something-linked-to-the-passage-of-time-and-not-getting-fired. Why aren’t other jobs like this? Because it isn’t sustainable with scarce resources. This is why companies had to give up this approach decades ago. Education needs to be managed differently than companies, but the principle of tenure needs to change. We can no longer afford the inefficiency and ineffectiveness that entitlement brings to our country.


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