By Valerie Strauss
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,
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
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
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
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
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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