This was written by Dennis Van Roekel, a 23-year math teacher at Paradise Valley High School in Phoenix who is now president of the National Education Association, the country’s largest education union.
By Dennis Van Roekel
“Last in, first out” (LIFO) is a term commonly used in merchandise control. It describes how stores stock products. With napkins and paper plates, you push the old items back to make room for new items of the same kind – so the last items stocked are the first items sold. For perishable goods you push old items to the front, so they’re the first selected by shoppers – milk and eggs are restocked this way.
LIFO is for inventory. Yet somewhere between the Kroger and the classroom, it became confused with teacher experience and layoff policies. Teachers are now viewed as “perishable”— the longer they’ve taught and the more money they earn, the faster they need to be “restocked” for fresher, less expensive goods. But teachers don’t come with “sell by” dates, and it’s an insult to punish them for their years of service.
Some people say layoffs are an “opportunity” to get rid of underperforming teachers. So let me be clear: If a teacher isn’t qualified, he or she shouldn’t be in the classroom. There are procedures in place in every school district to terminate unqualified or incompetent teachers, and administrators shouldn’t wait for a budget crisis to remove them. The fair dismissal process should be transparent, efficient and fair. We owe it to everyone concerned – especially students – to resolve cases as quickly as possible.
Now that’s settled, let’s deal with the real issue. Layoffs caused by budget cuts are about money, and experienced teachers cost more — until you take an honest look at the high costs associated with turnover from a passing parade of inexperienced teachers.
It’s extremely expensive to keep hiring and training new teachers. And these problems are worst in precisely the schools that most desperately need good, proven teachers.
So for the anti-seniority crowd, tell me again how fewer experienced teachers in schools that serve the poorest students is the answer? Do we really want an endless churn in our classrooms? How many people who dismiss the value of experience would send their own children to a school staffed entirely by first-year teachers?
Teaching is a complex profession, and experience matters. I taught math for 23 years, and I know without a doubt I was a much better teacher in year 20 than year 2. In no other profession is experience deemed a liability instead of an asset.
These are tough economic times for school districts, and no matter how you slice it, layoffs are difficult for everyone involved. It might save a few dollars in the short run by axing experienced teachers and retaining newcomers who earn less, but in the long run it’s our children who will pay the steepest price.
Let’s do the math.... Nearly 50 percent of new teachers leave the profession in the first five years, and schools lose 100 percent of their investment. Turnover rates in high-poverty districts are 2x as high as rates in wealthier school districts.
Research shows costs for “recruiting, hiring, and training a replacement teacher” is as high as $17,000 per teacher, leading to billions of dollars spent each year replacing teachers who left the classroom.
The National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future published a cost calculator to help administrators, parents and members of the community estimate a school’s expenses on teacher turnover.
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