Mar 02 2011

LIFO is good

The TFA alumni organization has been recently calling to get the opinion from different alums about the recent debate in New York City, and elsewhere, about ending LIFO (Last In First Out).

At a first glance, it probably seems crazy to be against abolishing LIFO.  I mean, why should eager, brilliant, and relentless teachers be fired when there’s a budget cut while old, lazy, and fat (most likely) teachers get to keep their jobs so they can continue harming our kids?  Politicians seem pretty eager to get rid of LIFO, and the poster child for education reform Michelle Rhee has made it the top priority of her new organization.

I’m against abolishing LIFO for a bunch of reasons, none of them that I’m scared to lose my own job to some hungry novice.

First of all, I don’t like anything that contributes to the current fad to vilify teachers and teacher’s unions.  The premise is that the education system would be fixed if all teachers were really trying hard.  They don’t try hard because they are protected by ‘tenure’ (said with a sneer, as if it was ‘diplomatic immunity’ or ‘double jeopardy’) so they are lazy and don’t do their jobs and the innocent kids are the ones who suffer.  Supporting the abolishing of LIFO supports this very narrow minded view.  I don’t think that abolishing LIFO would actually improve educational outcomes because I don’t think the problem is the old, lazy teachers.

Keeping teachers by their ‘merit’ sounds good until you realize that there’s not a good way to accurately measure this ‘merit.’  A teacher can have a bad year, a year where the chemistry just made it difficult for his or her class to perform on those standardized tests.  The next year the same teacher can have a good year.  It’s hard to compare two teachers since they are teaching different groups of kids.  Yes, if you have a teachers who is horrible for five years in a row then that teacher isn’t very good and is in need of some kind of support at first.  But you need to have about five years to really see how good or bad a teacher is.  A brand new teacher, by definition, hasn’t had enough years to establish his or her self as an effective teacher.  (Also, a lot of first year teachers — most, I’d say — are not very effective, so they’d probably deserve to be the first to go.)

Another thing I think should be considered is why LIFO was implemented to begin with.  It was so teachers couldn’t be fired indiscriminately.  If it’s gone and a principal wants to get rid of a veteran teacher with her fat, uh, paycheck, there are ways to artificially lessen her ‘merit.’  The principal can give that teacher the toughest-to-educate kids, the charter rejects, and then watch the stats go down and rack up those ‘U’ ratings until the teacher can be fired.

And we should also look at what could be the real — political — reason that they’re trying to abolish LIFO.  Firing veteran teachers saves money.  So is it about the kids or about the budget?

I’ve taught at a lot of schools, and I haven’t seen that many teachers that deserve to be fired.  There have been some that were in need of support and supervision and didn’t quite get that.  I do think that after a bunch of interventions if a teacher refuses to take steps to improve, that teacher can be eventually fired.  I believe that that’s the rule already.  Contrary to what ‘Waiting For Superman’ says, tenure does not mean job security for life.

Finally, I don’t like the idea that a teacher teaches for twenty years in the same district.  Has some ups and downs as anyone would have in a career and then, just as they are finally making a decent living wage, after making hardly anything for the first ten or fifteen years, being threatened and called lazy and then finally fired by some arbitrary statistically invalid metric.

We don’t need to abolish LIFO.  We need high level administrators who understand education with a valid plan not based on the ‘free market’ principles.  “We don’t need our leaders to understand education.  They just have to be good managers.”  “Charter schools will bring up public schools since they’ll have to fight to keep their kids from transferring out.”  “Scare those lazy teachers into teaching.”

P.S.  Diane Ravitch is the guest on The Daily Show this Thursday March 4th.

7 Responses

  1. Nicki

    Thanks for this Gary! I’ve been following our blog posts for a few years now and am kicking myself for not finding you (and you book) at the Summit last month. Anyway, I appreciate this post and the support you express for the whole profession. Thank you for bringing balance to many TFA-fueled conversations.

  2. I know it’s the TFA fad to be against LIFO right now, so I really appreciated reading about why it might be worthwhile to keep it. Yet the longer I thought about this entry, the more I started to disagree with you. I’d be really curious on your thoughts about a couple things…

    First, what if teachers were paid by merit instead of by seniority? Then, if you fired to cut funds, you’d also be cutting the people that the principals/districts themselves actually thought were best, which would make little sense. (I guess that doesn’t mean it wouldn’t happen, but still.)

    Second, what about the fact that the worst schools are often disproportionately affected by LIFO? Those are the schools where it’s hardest to keep staff but stability is so desperately needed. All the “last in” teachers are concentrated in those schools, and it just makes their teacher turnover worse while better performing schools don’t have to lose as many people.

    And third, I really disagree with you that there’s no problem with lazy teachers protected by tenure. I won’t say it’s most (or hopefully even many) teachers, but I’ve seen too many people who don’t even bother getting up from behind their desks to teach kids. Those “interventions” you talk about are long and deadline-filled and time-consuming for overburdened administrations, and the “eventually fired” piece means that years can go by before anything actually happens.

    Really, I’d love to hear your thoughts. I respect you enough that you could probably bring me to your side if those three things were addressed.

    • garyrubinstein

      Sorry it’s taken me a while to respond. I’ll write a detailed one within the week but I’ve been too busy. Thanks, though for the comment — you’re doing a great job with your blog!

  3. Gary,
    It was great to briefly touch base with you last month. While I agree that the anti-LIFO movement (by many organizations including TFA) isn’t always well thought out, I think stating “LIFO is Good” is equally concerning. Firing anyone, expecially teachers, is complex. Here is a blog entry on my only personal experience with LIFO: http://www.nationalteachersalliance.org/dialogue/article/i-was-a-victim-of-last-in-first-out-lifo. I would be interested in your thoughts.

  4. Last In, First Out? | mathinaz linked to this post.
  5. Patrick

    The name of this article is LIFO is good, but the article talks about why ending LIFO would be bad and all your points are political. You speak of what is fair to the teachers but never once mention what is best for the students or why LIFO is a good system. That is why you will never win over people like me who have young children, need to understand both sides better and wants to be educated. DOE says LIFO is bad because blah blah blah. They make coherent points aimed directly at the matter. They never say LIFO is bad because the teacher’s union is bad, corrupt, etc. You say LIFO is good because ending it is bad and not fair. Your argument is pitiful and political, not evidence based nor does it have the best interest of the students in mind.

    • Gary Rubinstein

      Note to ‘Patrick’: I know that you’re really Michelle Rhee and I want you to stop stalking me again.

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By a somewhat frustrated 1991 alum

Region
Houston
Grade
High School
Subject
Math

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