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LIFO Hurts Effective Teachers

“Protect our most effective teachers”
Column by Yolie Flores
USA Today
May 20, 2012

As financial challenges force school districts across the country to make layoff decisions, many new, successful teachers are being driven out of the system. The problem is not just budget cuts but also a four-letter word: LIFO, “last in, first out.” The last teachers hired are the first ones fired.

This is how layoff decisions are made in many states. The process is not fair to teachers or students.

Let’s start with teachers. If you’ve wondered why more bright, ambitious people don’t enter or stick with teaching, consider that the profession ignores success. If you knew you could be fired after two years of amazing performance, would you take the job in the first place?

Pittsburgh’s Faison Elementary School, which is located in one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods, is a perfect example of a school being crippled by LIFO. One year ago, after a rigorous application process, it selected more than two dozen teachers to help revitalize the school, which has a long history of struggling to help students meet basic standards.

Notable progress

The progress at Faison has been promising. Discipline problems are way down. Students are engaged in learning. Teachers have built a system of mutual accountability, collegiality and trust. However, by this summer, up to 40% of the teachers at Faison could lose their jobs.

“They are some of the best teachers I’ve ever had the privilege of working with,” says Faison teacher Janice Motley, an 11-year veteran whose job is safe.

Students need those great teachers. Take the third-grader at Faison who began this year with a D average. Now his average is a B. “He cried because he wants an A,” says LouAnn Zwieryznski, the principal at Faison. “If there’s one story like that here, there are 15.” The teachers made that happen, she says, by setting high expectations and helping struggling students to become successful ones.

Studies back her up. Research shows that an effective teacher is the single most important in-school factor in raising student achievement. And yet, according to leading education non-profit think tank TNTP, 80% of teachers who lose their jobs to LIFO are higher-performing than some of those who remain in the classroom.

Seniority reins

In 12 states, the length of a teacher’s career is the only factor school districts may consider when deciding whom to lay off. Those states employ nearly 40% of the nation’s public school teachers. This means that thousands of strong teachers are kicked out because they lack sufficient seniority. This year, when education budgets have been slashed by unprecedented degrees, we can expect to lose even more of our effective teachers to LIFO.

It doesn’t have to be this way. States can replace LIFO with a policy that still retains seniority but considers other factors, too. In the past few years, a number of states, including Arizona, Florida, Tennessee, Illinois, Ohio and Colorado, have developed sensible alternatives to “last in, first out.”

Unfortunately, many teachers’ unions have resisted any changes to LIFO. They’ve raised some important concerns, such as that veteran teachers might be targeted for layoffs because they earn higher salaries.

There’s no doubt that school districts should be prevented from cutting strong, experienced teachers to save money. But there’s also no doubt that we should stop firing outstanding teachers because they’re young or less experienced than their peers.

We owe it to our teachers and our children to learn from them and build in quality as a standard for everyone.

Yolie Flores, a former Los Angeles Unified School District board member, is CEO of Communities for Teaching Excellence.