There are a few different wrinkles in the arguments against seniority-based layoffs, but the point people lead with most frequently is that we need to do everything possible to make sure we keep the best teachers in the classroom.
The argument comes in many flavors, but the quotation below is a fair representation:
I assumed that because my students were proficient or advanced in all subject areas that I would remain in the classroom. Don't school districts want to retain passionate and effective teachers?
However, meeting the stated goal - keeping as many effective teachers in the classroom as possible - does not come directly from ending the use of experience as a criteria in determining how teachers are retained.
People who want to end using experience as a criteria for retaining teachers attempt to make this issue appear simple. However, this oversimplification comes with some baggage. Let's unpack.
Last In First Out versus Teachers as Professionals
The people who advocate ending the use of experience as a factor in how teachers are retained have come up with a catchphrase to identify what they see as the problem: Last In First Out. Renaming the issue is a key factor in all PR/Marketing campaigns, but it attempts to mask the reality that teaching, like most skilled jobs, requires experience as a means to mastery. The publicity campaign against experience is designed to convince people that firing experienced teachers will help us keep better, less experienced teachers.
In other words, they want us to believe that teaching is a job where one doesn't get better over time. However, it's difficult to see where attacking the professionalism and organizational worth of people who have made teaching a career helps improve education, or the lives of the kids who depend on it.
Ending Last In First Out is not the same as keeping the most effective teachers
When teachers are getting laid off, effective teachers are losing their job, no matter what criteria is being used. Any time we are talking about firing a teacher for anything except poor performance, we are talking about removing effective teachers from the classroom. This has nothing to do with Last In First Out, nothing to do with doing right by kids, and everything to do with economics.
People who advocate for ending the use of experience as a factor in hiring and firing decisions often select an individual that appears to prove their point. Of course, a sample size of 1 makes for an emotional story, but that emotional story should not actually be confused with system-wide truth.
Inexperience is not more valuable than Experience
In these simple discussions, the subtext is that the inexperienced teachers are worth keeping, and that the experienced teachers are burnt out and wasting student time. This facet of the conversation reduces both new teachers (young, idealistic, exuberant, energetic, untouched by the system) and experienced teachers (bitter, burnt out, unimaginative, counting days until retirement) to caricatures, but the overall gist is that experience in teaching is not an important asset. And the subtext here is that anyone who has spent more than twenty years teaching must have only done so because they weren't talented enough to do anything else because everyone knows that anyone with any talent either becomes an administrator or changes careers because really, teaching is thankless and the pay sucks.
No other profession treats its most experienced professionals with such callous disregard. Experience matters; an experienced educator teaches more than just the students in his or her classroom. An experienced educator can help shape the practice of new teachers, can help train new administrators, and can provide a poise and balance and perspective that comes from living through decades of transformation in the educational world. These assets help students, and they help shape a school culture.
An additional subtext of this facet of the conversation is that a smart, energetic, untrained person is more effective than an experienced, trained professional. This ties into the ongoing efforts and funding of organizations like Teach For America.
Ending Last In First Out will have a negligible affect on recruiting new talent
Another argument against the value of experience is that new teachers won't join the profession because they are afraid they will be fired:
I consistently see newly credentialed teachers obtaining positions but then losing them after just a year or two. After spending countless hours and dollars in graduate school, they wind up working as instructional assistants, leaving California to teach elsewhere or abandoning the profession altogether.
This line of reasoning reveals the divide between the reality of how education is funded and our rhetoric about how education matters. As people are quick to point out, these are difficult economic times. However, they are less quick to point out that, unless you work for one of the companies that helped destroy our economy in the first place, job security isn't that good anywhere. If our goal is to retain dedicated teachers, it seems to make sense to retain the ones who have shown a commitment to the profession, and can in turn pass down what they know to their younger, less experienced colleagues.
If we want to retain new teachers, we need to pay them well, provide them with opportunities for meaningful professional development, and create a legal and social framework that acknowledges that teachers are professionals.
Occasionally, the language around the importance of a talented teacher circles around to how not valuing experience will somehow increase professionalism:
Educators are able to change kids' lives. We need our laws to reflect the reality that teachers are, in fact, those who can.
This is true. Teachers change lives, and the laws passed need to reflect this. But, rather than simplifying the process of firing teachers (at any level of experience) the laws we need to examine are the laws that fund our schools, pay for teachers, pay for ongoing professional development, and pay for meaningful assessments of student, teacher, and administrative growth. These are the laws that need the greatest adjustment. We should focus our efforts on means that allow us to put more teachers in the classroom, not get rid of more teachers with less effort.
This argument is doubly pernicious because it brings the connotation that the current group of teachers are not professional, and that their professionalism needs to be elevated via legislative intervention.
Ending Last In First Out is predicated on the notion that current methods of determining teacher effectiveness actually work
Even the proponents of Last In First Out acknowledge that they have no current method of evaluating teachers. This proponent of ending Last In First Out in Georgia freely admits this fact:
I hope that after this important step, now Georgia will go even one step further to adopt a process that rewards excellence in teaching, borrowing successful performance and evaluation models from other industries. School systems should determine teacher effectiveness through a combination of performance evaluation, attendance, classroom management, experience and extra school responsibilities.
The irony is, the methods that "reformers" want to "borrow" are often of dubious merit. We know how to evaluate teachers, just as we know how to evaluate students. A blended approach that included peer review, self review, teacher-driven learning goals, formative assessment of student progress, summative assessment of student progress, and administrative review would give us a great idea of what constituted effective teaching.
Conversations we are not having
Unfortunately, when we are talking about whether or not experience should be valued, there are more important conversations that are not taking place.
Talking about Last In First Out means that we are not talking about the effects of poverty, hunger, and health on learning.
Talking about Last In First Out means that we are not talking about the folly of slashing spending on education.
Talking about Last In First Out means that we are not talking about methods of evaluation that work for and empower students.
Talking about Last In First Out means that we are not talking about more effective means of teacher professional development.
Talking about Last In First Out means that we are not talking about the difficulty of teaching a curriculum you had no role in choosing within an evaluative framework designed by politicians who have little to no classroom experience.
For the reform advocates who want to devalue professional experience, Last In First Out is a great wedge issue because it weakens unions, pits teachers against one another, and gives implicit value to unproven standardized tests - and it can achieve these goals "for the good of the children." However, learning is more complex than that, and the attempts to shoehorn important arguments into talking points and videos does everyone a disservice.
Image Credit: "you're out" taken by .sanden, published under an Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic license.