Last In, First Out: When A Policy’s Shortcoming Is Its Strength

I’ve been making my way through Richard Kahlenberg’s biography of Albert Shanker, and one of the recurring themes that jumps out at me is the way long-lasting policies can emerge from the confluence of short-lived circumstances. Previously I wrote about this kind of “policy stickiness” in the context of higher salaries for teachers with master’s degrees, but you can also see it play out with regard to dismissing teachers based on seniority, a practice known as “last in, first out” (LIFO).

Recently, reformers have attempted to do away with LIFO because it’s an arbitrary, albeit straightforward, way of determining whom to dismiss. But according to Kahlenberg, 30 years ago the climate of discrimination in the country was so bad that Shanker felt we needed LIFO because it was arbitrary.

Shanker and the AFT argued that seniority was worth preserving. Seniority “has proven to be the most effective mechanism for protecting workers—regardless of race, religion, sex or age—against capricious and arbitrary actions of their employers,” the union said. Seniority prevented racist employers from firing blacks first. And it also protected workers “from the whims and prejudices of their employers” not related to race. Finally, seniority was important as a union principle because it “prevents divisiveness among working people by distributing scarcity in a way that is objectively fair and therefore perceived to be fair.” (p. 241)

What better way to protect against racial discrimination than to mandate that everybody be discriminated against based on experience? The problem is that even if it was a smart thing to do at the time, the policy seems to have outlived its use. Nowadays the threat of a teacher being dismissed strictly because they are Black or Jewish is much less severe, and even if somebody were to attempt to pull it off, it’s unlikely they would get past the existing union protections. Meanwhile, Shanker’s final justification of maintaining unity plays right into the hands of critics who claim the unions put their own interests ahead of those of students. Shanker is effectively saying that allowing a superior teacher to be fired is a price worth paying for union solidarity.

One interesting takeaway from all this is that if attempts to do away with LIFO had begun earlier, so that there was less overlap with the push to utilize value-added measures, reformers may have been more successful in their efforts to eliminate it. But once teacher concerns about value-added measures began to grow, the fear of unknown arbitrariness rekindled the desire for an arbitrariness that was well-known. Just as Shanker felt LIFO was necessary to prevent dismissals due to racial discrimination, many teachers now feel LIFO is necessary to prevent dismissals due to what they perceive to be unfair VAM scores.


4 Responses to Last In, First Out: When A Policy’s Shortcoming Is Its Strength

  1. Pingback: Remainders: Kids are failing the new, online “marshmallow test” | GothamSchools

  2. Andrew Strom says:

    One benefit of LIFO that you do not address is that it’s transparent, easy to administer, and therefore it imposes the lowest transaction costs (if you’ll forgive the economic jargon). Let’s say we have a system where the “worst” teacher is laid off. Assuming you do not also want to do away with due process protections for teachers, then those teachers who are designated “worst,” would be entitled to a hearing to challenge whether, in fact, they are worse than another teacher who was not laid off. In order for the hearing to be fair, the laid off teacher would presumably be allowed to challenge not only his own evaluation, but the evaluation of every other teacher who might have been laid off instead. Imagine how expensive it would be for the school district to defend every lay off decision. I have never seen a critic of LIFO address this problem; instead, they seem to assume that it is easy to formulate universally accepted rankings for all teachers.

    • Eric Horowitz says:

      Well then why not just fire teachers randomly, or based on the first letter of their last name? The priority should be to a create a system where the best teachers are retained, not a system that’s the cheapest or easiest. For all the talk about “professionalization,” when it comes to actually doing something about it, such as ensuring that employees are retained based on ability, there seems to be little appetite for real action.

  3. Pingback: Education Policy Needs Two Offenses | Peer-reviewed by my neurons

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