Last In, First Out. Take a look at this interesting piece from the Christian Science Monitor: Teacher layoffs ahead: Should seniority prevail? Six considerations. By Amanda Paulson, staff writer.

[In the on-line version, the article is strangely laid out on six separate screens–consideration by consideration–which I found distracting and disruptive to coherency and flow. So, I copied and pasted, and have reproduced the whole piece below.]

Paulson reaches no strong or clear conclusions, but the picture she paints is not good for veteran teachers in less than stable subject areas or assignments. I think that the arguments put forth by the opponents of seniority (and tenure, I might add), and enumerated in the article, seem weak, uninformed, and specious.

More about that at the end of the article–see below. 

Teacher layoffs ahead: Should seniority prevail? Six considerations. ~Amanda Paulson, Staff Writer

Thousands of teachers are being notified this spring that their jobs are in jeopardy – and many of those layoffs may actually occur, given the severe budget crises affecting state and local governments. The result is renewed scrutiny of the seniority rules that govern layoffs in many states. Just in the past month,Florida has done away with such rules, and Georgia is on its way.

1. How do seniority-based layoff rules work, and why is seniority a hot issue now?

It varies from state to state – often from district to district – but many superintendents are required to let people go strictly on the basis of seniority, with the most recently hired being let go first, regardless of performance.

For the first time in a couple of decades, teacher layoffs are likely to be both widespread and severe. Moreover, a great deal of attention has been paid recently to how much teacher effectiveness matters to student achievement.

There has also been renewed focus on attracting and training a cadre of talented, eager new teachers – many of whom now face the ax.

“When you put all this energy into developing new teachers … and suddenly you have to make substantial layoffs, and there’s no system in place to do that in any other way than seniority, then people will challenge that,” says Susan Moore Johnson, a professor at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education.

2. What are the arguments for abolishing seniority-based layoffs?

Critics of “last in, first out” (LIFO) laws say that getting rid of them is a no-brainer. Why should a district have to lose one of its best teachers, while keeping a teacher whom everyone knows is a dud simply because the latter has put in more years? Such laws may seem fair to some teachers, they say, but they perform a huge disservice to students.

Moreover, LIFO laws can disproportionately affect high-needs schools, which typically have more new teachers. And they mean that more teachers will need to be laid off, since the newest teachers are also the cheapest for the district.

Michelle Rhee, founder of the advocacy group StudentsFirst and former chancellor of District of Columbia’s chools, has made getting rid of LIFO a core issue. “Right now we know that 85 percent of the people we’re laying off shouldn’t be laid off,” she says. “We need to work at getting to a system that’s rigorous, but also fair.”

3. Why keep seniority?

The big defenders of seniority-based layoffs are, not surprisingly, the teachers unions. Seniority is a common tool for ensuring that layoffs aren’t arbitrary, and that those who have put in the most time have the most job protection.

But even unions say they’d be open to other systems – once credible evaluations exist. In the absence of those, they believe that seniority is not only the most impartial way to conduct layoffs, but also gives weight to classroom experience.

“Experience does have value,” says Rob Weil, director of field programs and educational issues for the American Federation of Teachers (AFT). “Is it a complete proxy for teacher quality? No. But it’s the best we have as we move forward to get a better system.”

Mr. Weil and others worry that more experienced – and more highly paid – teachers will be more vulnerable without protections.

4. If not seniority, then what?

While defenders of LIFO say no good alternative exists, critics disagree. A handful of states and districts already use performance as the main criteria – some for the first time this year.

No one believes teacher evaluation systems are where they need to be, but critics of LIFO say that isn’t enough reason to omit performance-based factors when deciding who goes. Most districts still have some sort of evaluation system in place.

One proposal from The New Teacher Project, a nonprofit that advocates ranking performance over seniority, outlines a score card that would consider attendance, performance rating, classroom-management rating, years of service, and extra school responsibilities for each teacher, giving each a certain weight (with performance rating counting the most).

A number of the new laws already give metrics for ranking teacher performance: Typically, student learning growth – when it can be measured by tests – counts for a portion.

5. Are compromises possible?

Unions – the AFT in particular – have indicated a willingness to work toward better evaluation systems and, when they’re agreed upon, to have those play a part in layoff decisions.

Those advocating for quality-based layoffs sometimes suggest using seniority as a sort of “tiebreaker” when deciding between two apparently equally able teachers.

Districts can also give themselves more leeway in firing decisions when they narrowly define qualifications and licensing categories, says Harvard’s Professor Johnson. In some districts, a teacher displaced from one position has the right to displace a more junior teacher from another position, even if he or she is only barely qualified for that job. The more narrowly districts define job qualifications, the less likely that is to happen.

6. Which side has the momentum?

Some states are using the budget crisis and antiunion sentiment to move away from seniority rules. In recent months, Florida, Idaho, Utah, andOhio have done away with LIFO, Georgia is on the verge of doing so, and a dozen or so other states have either introduced such legislation or are considering it.

“Prior to [StudentsFirst] getting started [in December], only three states across the country had what we considered the best LIFO language,” says Ms. Rhee. “I think we’ll see that number jump almost fourfold by the end of this legislative season.”

Polling tends to show support for doing away with seniority-based layoffs. A recent StudentsFirst poll showed 74 percent of voters in favor of changing LIFO rules, and 43 percent of teachers wanting to change it. And a poll of teachers that The New Teacher Project conducted in two urban districts a year ago found 3 of 4 teachers believed factors other than seniority should be considered in layoff decisions.

So, now it’s my turn to point out what I think are flaws in the argument:

1. Of course teacher effectiveness matters. I feel like the repeated references by some folks to this obvious truism is beating a dead horse. Who could argue with this idea?

However, waiting to rid a school or district of ineffective teachers until lay-offs roll around each spring sure fails as a management strategy. We already have an outstanding teacher evaluation program in Delaware—probably one of the best in the nation. Why are the folks in charge not using the current evaluation system properly to improve teacher effectiveness as well as to boost school success? Let’s say Principal Smith observes third-grade teacher Miss Jones in October and notes that she does not appear effective in planning and preparation or in classroom management. So, Mrs. Smith works with Miss Jones to create an Improvement Plan.  If Mrs. Smith recognizes and can document that seven months later Miss Jones has not demonstrated adequate improvement and has been rated again as ineffective according to the evaluation guidelines, then Miss Jones should be let go—not laid off. Neither seniority nor tenure would prevent this—it is an administrative responsibility. Just do it.

The question was asked: “Why should a district lose one of its best teachers while keeping a teacher whom everyone knows is a dud simply because the latter has put in more years?” This begs the question: Why would any district keep a recognized dud? Either Mr. Dud should never have been recommended for tenure six years ago OR he should have been placed on a meaningful, well-constructed, useful improvement plan that worked. OR, Mr. Dud should already be a former employee.

In the article, Harvard’s Prof. Johnson implies that districts should not be forced to waste all of the resources that they have committed to the development of new teachers. It is my bet that the state and the local district have put a lot more energy and money into developing each of my veteran colleagues than they have into any 1st or 2nd year teacher.  Plus, I can guarantee that I am part of “a cadre of talented, eager [veteran] teachers.”  We over forty types are not over-the-hill.  Do not be so quick to write us off.

2. Lay-offs are PAINFUL—ask anyone in any line of work who has undergone a lay-off or down-sizing. Lay-offs are obviously painful to the teacher, but the ripple of effects include co-workers and students. Lay-offs in schools just to save money should be avoided. In an era of school improvement, laying off teachers and other school professionals is undesirable and counter-productive. I certainly agree with and understand the concerns over the possibly disproportionate effects of mass lay-offs on high-needs students and struggling schools.

However, it has been my experience that local districts in Delaware lay off or RIF teachers (RIF= Reduction in Force) by categories—by subject area and by assignment, not just by years of experience. RIFfing in Delaware is usually a response to uncertainties about student enrollment, not a way to save a few thousand bucks. In preparation for the next school year, a district may decide that they have to RIF ten elementary teachers, three social studies teachers, two guidance counselors, one art teacher, and a driver’s ed teacher. This pattern of RIFfing will encompass both tenured and non-tenured teachers—whoever is lowest in seniority in whatever category appears to be impacted. The local HR and district administration will calculate where the cuts need to be made based on factors such as student attendance projections, budget, and organizational need. Are teacher lay-offs handled differently elsewhere?

Paulson states that [LIFO laws mean] that “more teachers will need to be laid off, since the newest teachers are also the cheapest.” So, does this imply that a better plan would be to find a few more veteran, costly teachers and dump them instead? The new math:  Find six vets who cost out at $42,500 a piece vs. the eight newbies at about $32,000 each. Voila! A savings of $250,000 and two teachers. Gee—how can we scale that up?

BTW: Are there actually LIFO laws? I am pretty sure that teacher lay-off plans are arranged by negotiated agreement between the union and the school district.

Michelle Rhee’s data certainly strikes me as questionable. How on earth can she claim and prove that “85% of the people we’re laying off shouldn’t be laid off?” Where does that kind of data come from? From one district, one city, one state, across the country? Really? Easy for her, or anyone else, to say. Universal, nation-wide claims like this smack of rhetoric. As I have said here before—let’s localize the conversation. Let’s keep it real.

3. Big defenders of seniority-based layoffs include one other group—TEACHERS!!! It ain’t just the unions, Ms. Paulson. Believe it or not, education unions and union-negotiated contracts reflect the views and beliefs of the majority of their members, most of whom are teachers. Paulson goes on to say that seniority is used to ensure that “layoffs are not arbitrary, that those who put in the most time have the most job protection.” I would have said have reasonable job protection. Plus, I would counter that this sounds somewhat misleading. There is no differentiation of job protection for tenured teachers—20 year veterans get no more protection than a 5th-year teacher. Tenure offers protection against unjustifiable termination. Tenured teachers are guaranteed a due process hearing. It is not job security. Tenured teachers get terminated for cause and they get RIFfed in Delaware.

And, darn it! Classroom experience should count for something. I can think of no other job where experience is not valued and rewarded.

4. The TNTP idea of a scorecard looks appealing, doesn’t it? However, based on the suggested factors, most veteran teachers would still probably outscore most new teachers. And here’s why:

  • New teachers sometimes miss a greater number of school days—they are suddenly exposed to various germs—especially in our elementary schools. After five years, teachers seem to become more resistant to the little buggers—the germs, that is.
  • New teachers often struggle with classroom management—many may score poorly in this domain. Crowd control is a skill that can take a while to hone and master.
  • Years of service? Not too many points to be garnered there for a newbie.
  • Extra school responsibilities? Hmm—this is a tough one. New staff are often known for their enthusiasm and their openness to new experiences. However, good teacher induction practices actually place a limit on the number of additional out-of-school responsibilities that a newbie can or should take on. It’s all about the teaching—true dat.
  • Classroom performance—this is a very important factor in both retaining and exiting teachers. Ineffective teachers must be improved or exited from the profession. [No working teacher I know would disagree with this or stand in the way.] Effective teachers should stay and be further developed. The great ones should be recognized and used as teachers of teachers—not “promoted” to administration. Keep great teachers in the classroom. Create career pathways for great teachers that keep them with kids and with other working teachers. As stated above, lay-off season should not be part of a school’s or district’s teacher evaluation plan.

Hey! Wait a minute. Laid-off employees are often brought back—at least in Delaware schools. Local districts lay off some teachers in May and realize in July that they need more teachers. So, they bring back the RIFfed staff, and then hire additional teachers in August. Is this any way to run a school district? Most of this action is caused by discrepancies between Department of Ed. projections for student enrollment and district predictions for the upcoming year.  Oops!

5.  Compromise just for compromise sake?  Hmm,… maybe not.  It is my experience in New Castle County, Delaware schools that the domino effect caused by the so-called “bumping” of junior staff by more senior staff is greatly discouraged and impeded by negotiated agreements.  I am not aware of any such thing happening around here.

There is something else that bothers me about Consideration #5.  Paulson and the Harvard professor seem to keep mixing up two concepts: lay-offs and firings.  What is it, ladies?  You can’t have it both ways.  Are we debating termination practices or lay-off practices?  They aren’t the same.

One more thing: Who is at fault if school districts or state departments of educations fail to carefully consider hiring standards, certification or licensing criteria, or evaluation and retention practices?  It seems that employees—teachers, in this case—keep getting zinged for some of the ineffective management, administration, and bureaucratic practices of those who are supposed to be in charge.  15-20 years ago, local teacher unions complained heartily about administrators’ decisions to force a few teachers (usually newly hired staff)  to work outside of their area of certification—for example, the social studies teacher who suddenly was not needed to teach high school history and was reassigned to teach math.  The teacher certainly knew that this was a terrible and unfair decision.  The union knew that this was not good for kids or teachers.  These days, I find that both building and district administrators are much more careful to make assignments based upon actual certification.

My point?  The bosses—that would be school boards and district office administrators—are the ones in charge.  They need to be the ones held accountable for management deficiencies, responsibilities, and decision-making.

6.  Momentum, or inertia?  I’m a science teacher.  Momentum is not exactly what some people remember it to be.  Momentum is a property of a moving body that said body has by virtue of it mass and motion.  It is equal to the product of its mass and its velocity—in other words: a property of an already moving body that determines the time required to bring said body to rest when under the action of a constant force or moment. A moving train has greater momentum than a moving car. In a more general sense, momentum is the strength or force gained by motion or through the development of events.  Inertia is the property of matter by which it remains at rest or in uniform motion in the same straight line unless acted upon by some external force.

So, not to put too fine a point on the discussion: Is Paulson recommending that motion be brought to a stop, that inertia be changed, or that we all take sides? I think she means that it would be desirable, according to edreform experts like Rhee and some governors and state legislators, for the direction of motion regarding layoffs to be shifted to a place they favor.  I’m just guessing here, but I’ll bet that she does not mean that the momentum of the edreform movement should be altered in any way except to be sped up, and kept on course.

IMHO, her first sentence says it all: “Some states are USING the budget crisis and antiunionism sentiment to move away from seniority rules.”  I can guarantee that teachers certainly feel USED, MISUSED, and ABUSED.

Finally—I know that this piece is long, but this is important to me and my working teacher colleagues—those last few polling numbers appear incredibly unreal.  74% of voters?  Really?  The pollsters must not have included many lower-middle class, blue-collar types, no union guys, few parents with children in our public schools—the kinds of voters who like their kid’s teachers, and who understand something about teacher lay-offs.  Must not include many folks who recognize a prejudicially crafted question when they hear one.  “Tell me madam, do you think rules about teacher layoffs should be changed when they cause a great new teacher to be laid off while the more veteran and less effective teachers are allowed to stay?”

O.K.  O.K.  Let’s say that somehow the 74% is possibly accurate.

But, 43% of teachers polled want layoff practices changed?  And, to top it off, 3 out of 4 teachers want seniority to count for less than it already does?  I ask you, which working teachers would ever want this to happen?  Did they understand the damned questions???

Recent information about philanthropist and education guru Bill Gates indicates that there is one good way to generate data supporting or refuting one’s point of view. If I were to create a large group of young, enthusiastic, novice teachers (let’s say 2000-2500, or so), and ask them what they thought about the use of seniority as a primary factor in lay-offs, what do you suppose they might say? Hmmm,… Personally, back in 1973, I would have been embarrassed to think that I was more entitled to keep a teaching job than Mrs. McGillicuddy, the 15-year veteran, next door to me. Jeez Louise.

Here is one more reason—and I have many, many reasons—why I am so glad that I live and teach in Dear Old Delaware.  Our state may be a bit boring for some folks, and hard to locate (Delawhere?), but the people in charge of our schools and school policy continue to demonstrate that they respect teachers and other education professionals and the jobs that we do.  And, they do not lay off teachers just to try to resolve a budget crisis.  God bless them all.

This entry was posted in "Reform Experts", Attacks on Unions, Education Professionals, Education Reform, New Teachers, Quality Teachers/Quality Teaching, School Improvement, Seniority, Teachers and Teaching. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to LIFO

  1. Pingback: Keynote Speaking, Redux | Does Experience Count?

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