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LIFO isn’t the culprit in poor student achievement

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.

Lee Carlson

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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Comments (17)

  1. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 01/26/2015 - 07:52 am.

    Ending LIFO isn’t a cure-all, and no one is suggesting it is. But a system of evaluation that doesn’t count performance as a formal benchmark is simply not serving anyone.

    The step and lane system is wholly inadequate, it is a disservice to any teacher that excels and it is a disservice to the students for whom the whole public system is supposedly in place to serve.

    Providing comfortable, high paying, lifetime employment is a side benefit that has taken precedence over the real mission of public schools: Educating children.

    It’s time to refocus.

    • Submitted by Bill Gleason on 01/26/2015 - 08:30 am.

      Who to believe?

      An actual teacher with a lot of experience in the system who seems to know what he is talking about?

      Or someone who lives in South Carolina? Someone who was previously a candidate for School Board in St. Paul where he ran against the “homosexual agenda” of that school system?

      My (tax) money is on Lee Carlson.

      Bill Gleason, Minneapolis resident

      • Submitted by Thomas Swift on 01/26/2015 - 12:09 pm.

        Bill, I wasn’t running against the “homosexual agenda”. I questioned the propriety of an ad one candidate was running in a gay publication, but that had nothing to do with my platform. My platform was based upon the premise that the district needed to refocus it’s priorities in general and to put improving the educations for minority students at the top. I was, and is, my contention that too much time and money are spent on social engineering at the expense of academic rigor; it’s something that the data bears out.

        It’s probably best you not delve into subjects you know nothing about, but that’s your call. But in no case may you misrepresent my positions.

        • Submitted by Jonathan Ecklund on 01/26/2015 - 04:34 pm.

          A point of clarification?

          It was Al Oertwig, if I’m not mistaken, whom you claimed in a campaign piece was promoting a ‘homosexual agenda.’ So, while not technically running against the ‘homosexual agenda,’ you were running specifically against someone who promotes a ‘homosexual agenda.’ A distinction without a difference, perhaps.

          • Submitted by Matt Haas on 01/26/2015 - 05:45 pm.

            And here I figured

            He’d have been dead last. Wonders never cease.

          • Submitted by Thomas Swift on 01/26/2015 - 07:00 pm.

            Al’s literature claimed it was “time for LGBT Action”. At the time 47% of SPPS students were failing to graduate. In light of the outrageous failure to provide so many kids with an education, I found his dedication to a special interest offensive and suggested it was time for academic action.

            Now SPPS is a model of LGBT action, and still sporting a failure to grad rate >40%. Al got his way.

            • Submitted by Jonathan Ecklund on 01/27/2015 - 09:47 am.

              Can this be summed up as saying you are opposed to protections or considerations for LGBT youth, such as the Safe and Supportive Schools act? Or was it more of an opposition to engaging LGBT individuals in the political process?

    • Submitted by Lee Carlson on 01/26/2015 - 09:38 pm.


      Mr. Swift,
      I think you are creating confusion by regarding a layoff policy with an evaluation system.
      Evaluating how to layoff teachers is not the same as evaluating teachers.

      Our evaluation system ( iObservation/Mazano ) has 4 Domains that cover 60 different Elements. Nowhere is experience considered a bonus.

      An administrator would be pretty clueless to expect less out of an experienced teacher. Even if you have taught for years, coming to a new school requires time and extra effort just to get to the same level of effectiveness demonstrated at the previous school.

      It is easy to see how evaluation systems are actually biased against experienced teachers.

      With that said, I embrace the challenge and push myself to continually improve even as I mentor new and beginning teachers.

      As for your comment about teaching being comfortable, high-paying, and lifetime employment…either you have never been a teacher or it has been a very long time. It also must have been in a school district far different from any I worked in…or have ever heard of.

      In fact, I would like to visit that place. Could you give me an example of a school district where teaching is comfortable, high-paying, and lifetime employment?

      My son is going into education so i am sure that news would make for quite the discussion in their next Methods class.

      Seriously, I would urge you to do more than rely on political talking points. Education needs real solutions.

      • Submitted by Thomas Swift on 01/27/2015 - 06:59 am.

        With respect Lee, “evaluating how to layoff teachers” should be an integral part of evaluating teachers. Your evaluation system sounds great, but when where the rubber meets the road, it is Step\Lane and LIFO that dictate.

        Or are you suggesting that an administrator can deny a step or lane increase due to a poor iObservation report? If so, I’d like to hear more about that.

        As to the comfortable, high-paying portion, perhaps you missed this recent Pioneer Press piece:

        “For St. Paul teachers, it can pay to stay in district”

        Finally, I spent a decade being intimately involved in the SPPS as tutor, volunteer teachers assistant, activist and board candidate. I know whereof I speak.

  2. Submitted by Ken Wedding on 01/26/2015 - 10:59 am.

    Retaining good teachers

    As a teacher for 35 years, I worked with a lot of good and a lot of great teachers. I saw a few teachers who weren’t doing a great job, and they were dismissed if and when principals and supervisors did the evaluations they were supposed to do.

    I also saw lots of talented and dedicated teachers who left teaching because they found more attractive opportunities outside of schools.

    Retention of good teachers is a bigger problem than principals’ inability to fire documented underperformers.

  3. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 01/26/2015 - 11:53 am.


    ‘ But a system of evaluation that doesn’t count performance as a formal benchmark is simply not serving anyone.

    I don’t know that systems of evaluation do serve anyone. Has anyone systematically evaluated them? In any event, while I am indeed all for evaluating folks, the relationship between evaluation systems and quality of education is hardly clear. We talk about evaluation because it’s easy to talk about, and a way to divert ourselves from the real problems our schools face. We find it easy to delude ourselves into thinking that if we can reduce a problem to numbers, we understand it better.

    • Submitted by Frank Phelan on 01/26/2015 - 01:52 pm.

      Einstein Said:

      Not everything that can be counted, counts.

      Not everything that counts, can be counted.

      Once you realize that, evaluations for teachers, and grades for students become much more of a subjective area.

  4. Submitted by Lee Carlson on 01/26/2015 - 08:51 pm.

    The heart of it

    Evaluation systems are improving. Ours is the iObservation/Marzano version with 4 Domains and 60 Elements. I checked it again to address Mr. Swift’s concern and am happy to report that nowhere in that document is there any mention of tenure. It is based 100% on performance.
    it is still not perfect. I posed a simple question to the principal and the answer revealed how the evaluation tool can still be biased. It came to light that teachers with more experience have to meet higher expectations. Although every teacher shares the same goals, more is expected from an experienced teacher vs. a new or beginning teacher.
    That certainly makes sense…but it also at odds with the fallacy that performance is not the main driver of teacher evaluations.
    In fact, I challenge anyone to find a teacher evaluation that counts experience anywhere as a bonus for the teacher.
    I also don’t think my administrator is the only one who expects more out of experienced teachers than new or beginning teachers.
    I welcome that, even as I work to mentor new teachers.
    As for the comment about teaching being a comfortable, high-paying, lifetime employment experience…any person making that comment has not stepped in any of the schools where I worked. If that were the truth, we certainly would not have the teacher shortages that exist in MN and every state around us.
    There certainly will be many discussions regarding LIFO during this session. I just wish the agenda was centered more on supporting our schools instead of trying to find new ways to get rid of teachers. In the meantime, there is plenty of work to be done tomorrow right where I am.

  5. Submitted by Bob Petersen on 01/27/2015 - 09:38 am.

    It’s the Union, not LIFO

    You are correct that LIFO is not the problem in how teachers are decided to be laid off. It is the mechanism that the union you belong to has fought for that had made for LIFO to be used and nothing else. Teachers are evaluated, but only the worst teachers are let go through a lengthy process.
    Don’t get me wrong, there are a lot of great teachers and they care for the kids. However, our education system is not working and our kids are beholden to a powerful union that is unyielding to anything to make improvements for the kids. Any suggestions made for altering the landscape of education is fiercely attacked by the union and their leaders. LIFO is a product of this staunch defensive position.
    Does it seem fair that there could be poor teachers out there – and there are – but they are protected merely by tenure date only over newer teachers that may be superstars?
    Does it also seem like a coincidence that it pays for the union to save teachers that are paid much higher than to save the newer teachers that make less, thus routing less money to the union?

    • Submitted by Lee Carlson on 01/28/2015 - 09:25 pm.

      Not your union

      Mr. Peterson,
      Thanks for your comment. I just happen to serve as the senior Governing Board member for Education MN so I am happy to help clear up several misconceptions you have.
      That does not mean you are restricted from promoting inaccuracies so I certainly am not trying to impose.
      To supplement my teaching income over the years I have worked as a journalist from time to time so seeing the truth in print is my personal preference and I hope you can grant me that concession.
      In addition to the point you made about “only the worst are left go”…and that certainly makes sense when there is an effective evaluation system in place…struggling teachers are also counseled out of the profession when careers warrant that angle of support from the union.
      Your claim that the union is “unyielding to anything to make improvements for kids” just doesn’t align with comments I hear from legislators ( from both sides of the aisle ) or from administrators across the state, especially in connection with the support ED MN provided for school districts to deal with the recent unfunded mandate of TDE.
      Your premise provides readymade bad guy/good guy scenarios but it does not reflect the current educational landscape in MN.
      The propensity for negatively-charged words shows that you have a passion for your views and that is admirable but I would urge you to check your sources closer.
      As for protecting poor teachers, the union does not benefit from having teachers who are ineffective. The union protects due process rights of its members but it does not promote or protect poor teaching. I think due process is considered a fair measure in America?
      As for the reference to poor teachers and “superstars”. It may happen…do you actually have any real examples or does the rhetoric suffice for your purpose?
      If you do find actual examples, arrange for a visit with the administrator involved and share your concern. It takes that administrator about 9 hours to complete the process to identify an ineffective teacher, address the problems, and complete the final steps if the teacher in unable to complete corrective action. That may not be the favorite part of an administrator’s job but it is part of the duties.
      Lastly, a first-year teacher and a 27-year veteran like myself on the Governing Board are viewed as equal when it comes to the union. We pay the same dues. Wherever you got the info about a graduated dues schedule…not how it works Bob.
      Go ahead, check the facts.
      Thanks for getting misnomers out in the open! Discussions are always a great opportunity to improve the focus on issues of importance. Have a great rest of the week!

  6. Submitted by Lee Carlson on 01/28/2015 - 08:54 pm.

    Bigger issues

    Mr. Swift,
    I apologize for the confusion. I was speaking from a perspective of someone whose job is to work with students and teachers on a daily basis and is focused on collaboration for success. Since you extrapolate circumstances from your negative experience at SPPS I might also add that my perspective also gains insight from collaborating with dedicated teachers and actual board members from SPPS.
    I am not going to try and convince you of anything but I will oblige to answer your inquiries.
    You are clearly incredulous regarding the idea of an administrator denying a step or lane base on evaluations and you would like to hear more.
    You don’t need to hear anything, just look at my contract on the website where it is written in black and white. The administrator’s approval is the ONLY trigger for a step. As for a lane, that is ONLY possible with prior approval from an administrator.
    As you will be able to clearly see in that legal document, the administrator’s decision controls both steps and lanes.
    Again, our contract is nothing radical.
    I had not missed the article about SPPS teachers being in line for higher salaries if they perform in the system for an extended period. It makes plenty of sense as the cost of living is much higher than where I work. I am sure they would have a hard time getting anyone to work there if the salary schedule resembled ours. It stands true also that Mayor Coleman pulls down a salary much higher than our mayor out here in Greater MN.
    However, I did miss the part about teaching being comfortable? Was that in the article or was that just something you dropped in?
    Again, I apologize for assuming you would appreciate the many great things happening with the present state of education. Have a great rest of the week!

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