LIFO isn’t the culprit in poor student achievement

Lee Carlson, MinnPost, January 26, 2015

Reuters

The only way I stay in the system is to do my job. Tenure does not create a permanent barrier around a veteran teacher.

I began teaching in 1988. Over the next decade my career changes were connected to RIF. RIF means Reduction in Force and it is what school districts call circumstances also referred to as LIFO, or Last In First Out.

Each of the four times I was RIF’d was in connection with declining enrollment or insufficient funding. I never welcomed the process. It meant searching out a new position, moving, and learning to succeed in a new system.

Those are the facts.

It is also important to recognize that each new position created an opportunity to develop as a professional educator and reinforce my commitment to serve students. My favorite aspect of teaching is that you learn so much.

It sounds simple to put forth an idea that new teachers are “the best and the brightest” and the current system hurts retention of young, recently trained teachers and curbs potential achievement of students. The truth is far more political than it is practical.

You can look at my teaching contract on the school website. My “step” each year is subject to the judgment of an administrator. That administrator is not bound by law to retain or promote me if I am not doing my job. My contract is not radical by any means.

Every principal has removal tools

The only way I stay in the system is to do my job. Tenure does not create a  permanent barrier around a veteran teacher.

Every principal has the tools necessary to remove a teacher who refuses or can no longer do the job.

The truth is that continuing contract and tenure is inseparable from performance.

It is an insult to Minnesota schools and administrators to paint them as helpless, hands bound by LIFO and tenure laws. A teacher who is not doing his or her job — that is a problem. If the same ineffective teacher remains in the classroom, the problem is the administrator. By the way, a law for principals’ evaluation went into effect the year before the TDE law. Do we hear anything about that?

The TDE (Teacher Development and Evaluation) law currently being implemented has become a favorite for those attempting to undermine an important asset for communities that value strong education.

An arbitrary number

Part of TDE calls for 35 percent of the teacher’s score to be based on student achievement. There is no research behind that number. It is an arbitrary number.

Speaking from experience, the vast majority of new and beginning teachers end up with a teaching assignment with classes leftover from the teacher who previously occupied the position. Obviously, the toughest positions would involve the highest turnover. Linking TDE to the process, for the purpose of determining merit, stacks the odds against teachers dropped into these tough assignments and also those who choose to tackle the toughest class assignments.

It is easy to see how using student test scores for evaluation would lead to even more politics in the school system as subgroups of students with low scores were deemed unsafe for those who want job security.

So where is this noise coming from? Instead of administrators trumpeting this reform I see politicians pushing with a fervor after power shifted in the House.

The real problem

Fairmont Area Schools Superintendent Joseph E. Brown Sr.’s recent commentary in the Albert Lea Tribune shows that administrators can see LIFO differently.

There is a teacher shortage in Minnesota … and North Dakota … and South Dakota. The problem isn’t getting rid of experienced teachers who performed for many years and show commitment to the school system and community. The real problem is finding any teacher at all.

When a new teacher showing great ability and dedication leaves a school system it is rarely because of classrooms occupied by deadbeats; it is because of a lack of funding, and/or declining enrollment, or a choice.

Teachers, new and veteran, do their job. Every reliable poll points to that fact. Ask why politicians are spending time on getting rid of professional educators when we have a shortage of teachers. Identifying what curbs the potential achievement of students is worthy. Painting LIFO as the culprit has no evidence. None.

Schools need support to get the work done, not political distractions.

Lee Carlson, a teacher and coach for St. James and Cedar Mountain-Comfrey, also serves on the boards for Education Minnesota, Minnesota Rural Education Association, and Minnesota Minority Education Partnership.

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