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.”