When I heard the names of the four teachers recently laid off from our middle school, I thought, “Why them?” One is among the most talented and beloved of all my children’s teachers through the years. Then I was reminded of the school district’s “last hired, first fired” (LHFF) policy. The dismissed teachers are all young.
LHFF has been around longer than punch clocks. Trade unions developed complex reward systems based on seniority. This made sense when people who worked with their hands dominated our economy. Back then, a carpenter or machinist began as an apprentice and honed skills through time. Seniority meant superior skills. When two military officers hold the same rank, power goes to the one in the position longer. That sounds reasonable.
But it also sounds downright American to grant the bigger reward to the individual who does a better job, a tenet of our free-market system.
In the world of commerce, a business lives or dies based on financial performance. Likewise, an employee rises or falls with his or her measurable contribution to the business. Granted, shiftless workers riddle corporate America, but they typically survive by flying beneath the radar of performance-based systems.
Poudre School District’s LHFF policy disregards performance.
The word performance wades us into troubled waters. If seniority were not used to determine layoffs, some other metric would, and measuring teacher performance is the most controversial issue in education today. In spite of merit-pay initiatives in many states, no proven and agreed-upon method exists for evaluating how well teachers teach. For many educators, the seniority system is the least of multiple evils.
I can understand nervousness about abandoning LHFF. Some fear opening a Pandora’s box. Once the discussion turns to measuring merit, where might it lead?
I’m torn, because teachers are being impossibly squeezed right now. One side of the vice began in 2001 with the shortsighted No Child Left Behind Act and, as a result, unprecedented pressure to quantify student improvement. The other side of the vice: teachers have fewer resources, with per-student education funding hitting all-time lows.
One teacher told me that without the seniority system, unchecked administrators would target older teachers for layoff because eliminating their higher salaries would help the budget. That’s cynical but possible. So we circle back to the dilemma of measuring teacher performance and the need to remove subjectivity with quantifiable metrics.
Having accumulated a good bit of seniority myself, I respect those who have stuck with their professions through time, continuing to contribute. But if my value to an organization were measured by on-the-job longevity, how could I feel truly valued?
LHFF diminishes the vital importance of our teachers. In essence, the policy flies in the face of every teacher excellence award because, in the end, when it comes to who stays or goes, excellence is less important than punching the clock. The teacher’s impact on students is secondary.
If the institution values longevity above performance, where’s the incentive to innovate and excel? The system seems to be telling teachers to just show up.
In spite of LHFF, most PSD teachers push themselves to excel on a daily basis. With four children in our school system, I witness stellar teacher performance on a regular basis. How unfortunate that LHFF ignores it.