Published Online: March 31, 2010

Does 'Last Hired, First Fired' Really Make Sense?

It’s spring 2010, and I am no longer called Heather among my peers. Instead I am known by my number: 173. That’s my place on our district’s seniority list. With the pink slip plague rippling out from our district’s first-year teachers toward those of us in our 10th, all of us in the danger zone are sweating. And it doesn’t stop here. If some teachers are nixed this year, and none are hired to replace them, then those of us who survive this round actually become even more vulnerable next year when the cuts continue.

It’s a frustrating time in education. And many of us are wondering, “Why me?” How can some of our hardest working or highest-quality teachers be bumped from the classrooms, just because they were recruited more recently? Does it make sense to preserve every teacher who is higher in the rank order, when at least a few of them should not be allowed to cling to their positions without challenge?

These are the questions I want to tackle here today.

I believe it’s time we analyze the value of the current seniority-list system because we cannot allow that which is broken to remain sacrosanct when it serves one purpose well but fails in serving others. I want taking a step back and look at the pros and cons of the seniority issue, and hopefully, with a little more perspective and helpful feedback from you, we can tease apart this Gordian Knot and answer the most important of questions: “What’s in the best interest of students?”

The Case for Seniority

In the past, “last hired, first fired” policies sometimes proved to be the only objective way to make tough decisions.

“The List” began, as many regulations tend to begin, because people were liable to be mistreated without it. And without seniority in place now, who is to say there will not again be mistreatment? When budget cutting is on the table, our highest paid, most experienced teachers are the most tempting to ax. If as much as 75 percent of a district’s budget is spent on teacher salaries, why wouldn’t a district be tempted to cut those who cost the most?

Currently, veteran teachers are also fighting the myth that young teachers coming into the profession are somehow better and brighter than those with many years of experience—as if seasoned professionals were cars and trucks with too many miles, ready to be traded in. The fact is that that being young and energetic does not a knowledgeable, talented, or dedicated teacher always make. Remember, in education, it’s a marathon not a sprint.

The fact is that schools need a generational balance. If we were to cut from our staffs only the most experienced, we would also be losing many of our most wise. We would be diminishing the opportunity for those shiny young novices to learn from some of the very best. Collaboration would be more of a scramble to keep reinventing the wheel than to make real progress. We would be segregating based on price, and the quality of a school would very likely suffer.

So however we might alter the current lock-step system of “downsizing,” those changes should not make our most experienced and highest paid teachers the most vulnerable to being discarded.

Extinguishing Potential?

But here’s the dilemma: As many of us know, to indiscriminately cast aside some of our most vibrant and promising teachers—just because they’re the most recently hired—is also a crime. And at a time when teacher quality is under fire, I have to ask, why are we as a profession so hell-bent to maintain a system that may harbor teachers who are of questionable quality, while extinguishing the careers of many who have great potential?

We who work day to day in the schools know that the vast majority of teachers are hard-working, dedicated, and devoted to their profession. But it would be proof of our own inability to see with clarity if we deny the unfortunate truth that there are some teachers in our higher ranks whose time has come to go. We can argue about why they slipped through the safety filters, but there they are, and the List does protect them.

At a time when schools are losing huge numbers of great teachers, every single unfairly protected teacher counts. And watching poorly performing teachers remain protected can chip away at the morale of a staff while also undermining the reputation of the profession.

No capable and dedicated person wants to work in a quality-blind profession, but that’s what’s gradually happening to education. This is, in part, due to school administrators and teacher-education and -licensing programs that are failing to perform their role as gatekeepers for our profession. There is at least one teacher on every staff that makes us all wonder, “How the heck did they get in, and why do they still have a job?” Somewhere in that teacher’s past timeline, a college professor or principal did not have the guts to say, “This person doesn’t meet the standards of the teaching profession.”

Much as we might honor the roots of the current system, the cold hard truth is that establishing the vulnerability of a teacher based on seniority alone is bad for students. By disallowing performance as a factor in job security, teachers are being told, in effect, that “professional growth is not really important.” We are shackled by a system set up to reward people based on their hire date, not on their achievements, ability, or effort.

Right now, I am watching two teachers I mentored through California’s Beginning Teacher Support and Assessment program. One has become a fellow of the National Writing Project since her hire, and the other has brought History Day, peer helpers, and girls volleyball to our school. They have worked hard to improve their craft and brought much to our school. Both are sweating it out to see if they will be hired back next year.

And let’s get pragmatic about the future for a moment. If we hope to encourage second-career teachers—those leaping from a different ladder into the classroom to share their life experiences, some with families in tow—how do we entice them with our meager salaries if we can’t at least promise them the opportunity for security and advancement based on their effort, ability, and contributions?

When I weigh it all out in the balance, I have to conclude that the seniority system is set up to reward “good enough” the same as “blood, sweat, and tears.” The resulting effect disallows a school or a district from creating a staff that is made up of the best veterans it can retain and the best candidates it can recruit. And that’s what parents—and most of society—want for our kids.

Tenure With Meaning

OK, I assume we all agree that the bull’s-eye on the target that we’re all shooting for is what best serves the students. The ideal staff is made up of great teachers across the spectrum of age and experience —from those hired 30 years ago to those recruited just last year. Picking off our most experienced teachers to balance the budget is not in the best interest of the kids or schools, nor is giving our rising new generation of teachers the boot without any thought to assuring the quality of our future classrooms. So what do we do?

Just as science fiction often gives us glimmers of the science to come, I think “education fiction” might reveal the possibility of a greater educational system in the years ahead. So come along with me now as I mull and dream.

What if teachers were scored on multiple measures? The National Council of Teaching Quality recently released a report on using alternative measures to determine a teacher’s position, based on a combination of 3Rs (roles, rules, and rights) that take into account teaching ability as well as seniority. Many states and districts are already moving to adopt quality-based layoff systems that substitute multiple criteria for a single indicator of job security. Even some progressive union leaders, like Louise Sundin of Minneapolis, are arguing that performance should be part of the decision about who remains in teaching during extreme economic times such as these.

What if more K-12 teachers were allowed alternative ways to work in hybrid roles? Imagine teachers with one foot in the classroom and one foot in another branch of the profession, earning more income from other sources (as online teachers, virtual and face-to-face mentors, teacher educators, authors, etc.). Not only would hybrid roles keep many teachers from burning out professionally, they might also allow districts to save money by spreading teacher salaries across two or more income sources. Giving teachers opportunities to create hybrid careers permits them to use their abilities beyond the classroom while still teaching students some of the time. Researchers are telling us that many young teachers these days do not imagine themselves working in a classroom for 30 years with little potential for advancement. As this new generation of teachers moves into our schools, it makes sense to encourage alternative ways to sustain a satisfying teaching career.

What if teacher evaluations were more authentic and honest? A credible evaluation system could go a long way toward restoring society’s faith in the quality of those who teach our children. Much of the current criticism of seniority grows out of an all-or-nothing approach to evaluation—a choice between “satisfactory” and “unsatisfactory.” Perhaps some differentiation is in order? Perhaps we should be exploring (with teachers as full partners in the process) department-designed rubrics, peer-to-peer evaluations, and gradations of evaluative language? Perhaps, as I’ve argued on my blog, tenure itself should be a more precious thing—something you have to achieve by doing more than just being there.

A Broken System

I believe the List itself should be transformed into indicator of dedication and ability. It should indicate those who have not only shown commitment to a district over time, but also in their quality of work.

For those who may be reading this article who are not teachers: It’s important to remember that teachers aren’t the villains in this story. They may be the easiest to villainize, but the vast majority of them are the good guys. They are the ones teaching in schools our society has given up on. They are the ones trying to meet conflicting mandates from every side. They are the idealists who believe in the promise of each new generation. Do not confuse a broken system with broken people. Experienced, effective teachers are a must if education is to succeed, and we have plenty of them. Learning in a classroom occurs when kids are energized and encouraged by a teacher of any age.

And for the teachers out there, I have a message for you as well. We are blamed for the broken system because we are not making it a priority to speak out from the trenches. Society will listen to those with the loudest voices, and ours aren’t even yet heard at a whisper. Share what works in your classroom. Share the victories of your school with your community. Share your ideas about better teacher policies. We can no longer give our tacit permission for those few who are the weakest among us to dictate our reputation. If society is to respect our profession, as it deserves, we need to write our own stories.

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