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Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Mar 29 2011

Last In, First Out?

Okay, start by reading “LIFO is Good” by the famous Gary Rubinstein (one of the few people in the TFA world who actually has substantial experience… read his blog) and then “LIFO is Good Part II” which is his response to my comment. (Does a shout-out from Mr. Rubinstein make me feel famous? Yes.) For good measure, then go and get the Michelle Rhee anti-LIFO clip here. Done your homework? Okay, now let’s begin…

Last In, First Out (LIFO) is the policy that puts the last teacher hired as the first to be let go during layoffs. It’s an easy policy to hate, because it quickly conjures up the image of the ineffective teacher, lazy from tenure, continue to waste the learning of children, while the energetic, life-changing newbie gets kicked to the curb. As someone who was a student of both the laziest of tenured teachers (hey, Mr. “Here’s The Textbook Kids, Open It If You Get Bored”) and the best of inspiring young teachers (Ms. O’Reilly? Mr. Chen? Do you read this?) I have a knee-jerk reaction against this policy. Don’t even get me started on how much I hate current teacher tenure. But of course, there’s always another side to things, and the “LIFO is good” posts really opened my mind to a couple things I hadn’t considered. Here is the Cliff’s Notes version of his pro-LIFO points:

  • LIFO protects against districts laying off experienced teachers just because they’re more expensive than new teachers.
  • There’s no good way to measure “merit”, so LIFO is the only fair way to do layoffs.
  • Old, lazy teachers are not the problem.
  • Job security draws people to teaching.
  • New teachers often don’t stick with the profession anyway.
  • Abolishing LIFO could create competition between new and experienced teachers and destroy mentoring relationships.
  • First year teachers aren’t usually very good.

[Did I miss anything important, Gary?]

I’m really intrigued by two of those ponits. I would hate if mentoring translated into working yourself out of a job, because the experienced teachers I’ve learned from have been crucial to my development and I couldn’t do this without them. I know that and would never want to be competing with them for their jobs. Also, I could totally see districts saving money by¬† laying off more experienced teachers of roughly the same quality as younger teachers, which would be wildly unfair to people who have put so many years into the profession.

Are those two things enough to make me support LIFO? I still haven’t decided. Allow me to think in writing:

I really do wonder how it would all change if teachers were paid based on merit. I don’t mean that in terms of current performance-pay bonuses (I agree, Gary, that those would be irrelevant in this debate), but if we genuinely paid teachers based on how well they do, like in every other profession where success means you get a raise. Would that draw people to teaching who are now drawn by tenure? Would that prevent (or encourage?) districts laying off good teachers for financial reasons? Would it entice ineffective tenured teachers to work harder? (Or, would it make the competition worse and reduce mentoring more?)

Unlike many people, I actually do believe that teacher merit should be measured. I definitely don’t believe you can tell much about a teacher from test scores, but I do believe you can tell most things about a teacher from some sort of test-score analysis plus their evaluations from classroom observations. I’m always shocked at how much my administration knows about what’s going on in classrooms, and I think it’s ridiculous that they aren’t able to do much with that information. Sure, there’s the risk that administrators will be unfairly out to get teachers, but why does that come up SO frequently as a concern? There has to be just as much risk of that in every other profession, and yet most managers are allowed to use their discretion (biased or otherwise) to decide who works for them. If you end up unlucky enough to be entirely innocent and have a crazy boss out to get you, you’ll hopefully get a job somewhere else. (Also, what if districts had people whose sole job was to evaluate teachers at each school? Would that make it more objective and acceptable? I know administrator evaluations actually are unfair sometimes.) In general, I really think that principals know enough about who’s good and who isn’t at their schools that they could be a better judge than just using the signing date on contracts.

One last thought: I do see more of a problem than Gary does with teachers who collect a paycheck for doing effectively nothing all day. I also know that many administrations are too overworked for the time-consuming process of the required pre-firing “Improvement Plans”, so they only start it for the worst of the worst teachers. There are plenty of teachers out there who are completely ineffective, and I think it should be easier to get them out of classrooms. BY NO MEANS am I saying that TFA or any other influx of brand-new teachers is the answer and older teachers are the enemy. Let me be clear that I think that almost all experienced teachers are better than almost all new teachers, because there are too many things in the classroom that only time can teach you. Most new teachers are relatively terrible, and the experienced teachers I work with outshine me every single day. I’m just saying that one teacher wasting children’s learning time is too many, and I know there’s more than one of them out there (new or experienced). If districts have to do lay-offs, I think I’d still like to see them go first. But Gary at least has me hesitating before I jump on the bandwagon with this one.

4 Responses

  1. Wess

    I was similarly caught between the two (three) pieces (or rather, between GR’s post and everything I’d thought about LIFO before). I still feel pretty suspended between the two, but I do think saying “LIFO is good” is going a bit too far. Like you implied when you mentioned truly merit-based pay, I think we can come up with other ways to address any drawbacks of abolishing the policy that make more sense than keeping it around.

  2. Matt

    I think Gary’s point about new teachers seldom sticking around anyway makes the most sense to me. I’ve read multiple reports indicating that half of teachers, period, bail after 5 years, and turnover for young teachers in high-poverty schools is even higher. If you’ve been in the game for 8+ years, you’re likely to stick around…but that young hotshot, TFA or not…is she going to stay past year three? What if she gets a great grad school offer? Or a school leadership opportunity?

    I think LIFO is more complicated than Rhee, or even other TFA leadership types, have let on. Being experienced isn’t a bad thing, and not every “older” teacher sucks.

  3. Stephanie

    No system is perfect. With whichever system you use, there are going to be a few teachers who are let go who shouldn’t have, or kept who should have been shown the door. Which scenario do you think would lead to the fewest errors?

  4. Em

    I’m a future CM and current UChicago student, and there’s some really interesting research into measuring teacher merit going on here in conjunction with our Urban Teachers Education Program. They basically have trained people in classroom evaluation and then had them observe a TON of classrooms and evaluate the teacher on categories ranging from use of classroom space to engaging students to being facile with their material. In order to get into the Excellent Teacher category in many sections, observers had to see students taking responsibility for some of the stuff teachers do (i.e. quiet the class when they’re disruptive). There’s a ton more statistics to do, but some of their early findings suggest that typical principals (who were also trained) CAN tell who the really awful teachers are. They can also tell the mediocre teachers, to an extent. But they tend to boost everyone who is Good into the Excellent category–they seem to have a minimum competence threshold above which everyone’s excellent. Trained observers were much more discriminating, and also agreed very closely with each other.

    They’re still waiting to see if test scores correlate at all. So the principal judgments aren’t always so great, but all this suggests that maybe we CAN objectively measure teacher merit in a more reliable way, and maybe, with some training, we CAN tell, through observation, who’s bad, mediocre, good and excellent. If so, it helps address the biggest concern about merit judgment.

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