Mike Bloomberg's plan to lay off 4,100 New York City public school teachers is really about his fight to abolish teacher seniority protections. The mayor hopes that by forcing the first widespread job cuts on the school system since the 1970s, he will build political support around his proposal to lay off teachers according to merit, without regard to how many years they've spent in the system.
I believe a fair layoff system would evaluate teachers based on multiple, clearly-defined measures of effectiveness (classroom observations, lesson plans, student portfolios, student achievement data) and then use seniority as a tiebreaker. Such a system would protect excellent, experienced educators who have demonstrated a longterm commitment to the classroom, while also saving the jobs of the most talented newcomers. That said, I see two major problems with Bloomberg's plan: First, New York's current teacher evaluation system is sub-par and the new system does not take effect until September. The new fiscal year begins July 1, and layoffs would need to get done before then. Second, we're talking about such a massive loss of teachers–a cut of more than 7 percent of the jobs in the system–that every school community in the city will feel the pain, with larger class sizes, fewer electives, and fewer staff to supervise extracurricular activities. At this scale, cuts shouldn't be seen as an "opportunity" (Arne Duncan's term) to cut dead wood; they ought to be understood as a crisis.
So how did we get to this point? I'd argue that the current media and political climate of hostility toward public sector workers has played a major role in making teachers and schools the primary victims of state budget cuts. In the education debate, a key development has been the appearance of the catchy term "LIFO" to describe the teacher seniority protections Bloomberg opposes. Prior to January 2011, this acronym, which stands for "last in, first out," was not part of the school reform debate in New York City or nationally.
Stephen Sawchuk, an Education Week reporter who has covered teaching issues since 2005, remembers that when teacher layoffs became a national story in 2009, the dominant term to describe seniority protections was "last hired, first fired." One New York City education reporter I talked to, a six-year veteran of the beat, told me she felt surprised and troubled by "LIFO's" sudden prominence. "I never heard the term before it became a political issue this school year," she said.
"LIFO" is an effective rhetorical tool–and a problematic term for journalists–because the acronym powerfully recalls one of the most potent critiques of teachers' unions, that they provide incompetents with job protections for life. So where did "LIFO" come from?
LIFO is an accounting term, usually used to describe one way producers or retailers can manage inventory, by recording the sale of newer goods before older ones, thus conferring a tax advantage. The last time LIFO was frequently cited by national media was in early 2009, when the Obama administration and then-Democratic Congress attempted to prevent the oil and gas industry from using LIFO accounting as a tax-loophole.
I used LexisNexis and the archives of Education Week to trace the emergence of LIFO in the education reform debate specifically. Throughout 2009, Bloomberg, Joel Klein, and Michelle Rhee spoke frequently about ending teacher seniority protections. But they never used the acronym "LIFO;" instead, they used the full phrase "last in, first out."
From what I can tell, the first American use of the LIFO acronym to refer to teacher seniority protections came on May 19, 2010 in an Education Week op-ed by Eric Hanushek, a prominent Stanford University education researcher and fellow at the free-market Hoover Institution. Hanushek introduced readers to the acronym and argued that ending LIFO would be a good way for cash-strapped states to cut costs during a recession.
I emailed Hanushek to ask him how he got the idea to apply "LIFO" to education. "I just know [the term LIFO] from accounting — and my use just picked up on the standard accounting jargon, which seemed to characterize the [teacher seniority] rules perfectly," he wrote back. Now that teacher layoffs are a reality because of the recession, Hanushek wrote, people are paying more attention to the problem of good, young teachers losing their jobs because of seniority rules.
On Jan. 25, 2011, the acronym jumped into the mainstream when the New York Post editorialized against "LIFO," arguing that ending the policy would be the best way to handle Governor Andrew Cuomo’s proposed $1 billion in budget cuts to New York City government. “Clearly, many young men and women who've shown great promise in the classroom are at risk," the Post wrote. "As are the pupils they teach.”
According to LexisNexis, “LIFO” has been used in over 300 news reports since the Post editorial appeared. When web magazine The Daily Beast invited 20 “big thinkers” to suggest a single policy that could “fix our broken government” in 2011, both Bloomberg and Teach for America Founder Wendy Kopp named ending teacher seniority protections, though neither used the LIFO acronym, perhaps an acknowledgement that the term is politically loaded. The New York Times avoids using the acronym, although Education Week has used "LIFO" 19 times since it published the Hanushek op-ed last year. In the previous four years, the trade publication had not used the term even once.
I'm a language geek, and I know I've gone on about all this at great length. I'll stop now. But I do think terminology matters, and it's worth giving some thought to the fact that "LIFO" emerged in the education policy debate as a talking point from advocates and editorial boards with a very specific argument, that budget cuts could be a positive thing if they lead to mass, merit-based layoffs of teachers. The teacher evaluation debate, however, is far more complex than the term "LIFO" suggests.