LIFO | Last In First Out

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In this time of unprecedented, chronic budget crises at all levels of government, we are faced with the prospect of many years of teacher layoffs that will likely affect thousands of school districts across the country. This is bad news for children, but exactly how bad depends on how the layoffs are done.

It is absolutely insane on many levels for layoffs to be done strictly by seniority (also called, Last In, First Out, or LIFO), yet approximately 75% of school districts nationwide, either because of state law or union contracts, mandate precisely this. Numerous studies have shown that after the first few years, there is no correlation between years in the classroom and teacher quality (which is, after all, the single most important in-school factor in student learning). In fact, studies have shown that, after rookie teachers, the least effective teachers are the ones with the most seniority, some of whom are burned out and just punching the clock until their pension kicks in. It makes no sense – and it’s a disaster for children – if teachers like this are kept in the classroom while in some cases Teachers of the Year are laid off.

Even worse, LIFO disproportionately harms schools with the highest percentage of poor and minority students. While at first glance these schools don’t have teachers with meaningfully lower-than-average experience, the distribution of experience is quite different: they have many more rookie teachers and many more teachers at the end of their careers. In other words, these schools too often have the worst of both worlds: they are used as dumping grounds for both inexperienced rookies and burned-out veterans. Yet the latter teachers are favored over and over again when districts face the difficult choice of having to let teachers go.

LIFO also results in far more teachers being laid off, since many more of the most junior teachers have to be let go to save a certain amount of money, given that they cost the least. Finally, LIFO is a huge barrier to increasing the professionalization of teaching. What high-caliber person would want to enter a profession in which they could be the first to be laid off, no matter how outstanding their performance? Teachers’ unions need to stop behaving like longshoremans’ unions if they wish to be taken seriously when they call for their members to be treated like professionals.
Newark provides an excellent (and horrifying) case study of the consequences of the LIFO policy. Because of recent budget cuts, 357 non-tenured teachers had to be laid off. To add insult to injury, the district placed 158 central-office personnel in classrooms due to seniority rules. Many of these replacements haven’t been in a classroom for a long time, and, due to their higher salaries may have double the workload of the teachers they are replacing, as classroom size would need to be increased to offset the cost. Furthermore, because of tenure laws and union agreements, “teacher quality” is not a consideration in layoffs and unfortunately, the office staff will be replacing “some of the most promising teachers.” (

For more on this topic, see the following three reports:
1. The Case Against Quality-Blind Layoffs, The New Teacher Project, February, 2011 (

2. A Smarter Teacher Layoff System: How Quality-Based Layoffs Can Help Schools Keep Great Teachers, The New Teacher Project, March, 2010 (

3. The Disproportionate Impact of Seniority-Based Layoffs on Poor, Minority Students, Center of Reinventing Public Education, May 2010 (

4. The Need to Eliminate Seniority-Based Layoffs (

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