This is the policy under which all those Philadelphia teachers were removed from their jobs when the district had to cut costs this summer. Pennsylvania requires a LIFO approach whenever budget shortfalls lead to layoffs.
Layoffs are always upsetting, but going about them without considering teachers' performance makes them much worse - especially for children. Nothing in our schools is as critical to students' learning as the work of teachers.
Common sense suggests that LIFO ought to be scrapped, and research confirms it. An Urban Institute study found that when schools conduct layoffs this way, they let some of their most effective teachers go. In fact, the study found that only about 13 percent of the teachers who would be laid off under a seniority-based system would also be removed under a system based on effectiveness.
Stanford University researcher Eric Hanushek has found that a highly effective teacher produces three times as much learning as an ineffective teacher. Knowing that, how can school districts continue to allow this outdated, destructive practice to determine who teaches our children?
Philadelphia's schools in particular can ill afford to push their best educators out the door, because their students' achievement levels are nowhere near where they ought to be. On the most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress, fewer than one in five of the city's elementary- and middle-school students were proficient in math. That is, more than 80 percent of the children in the district failed to demonstrate competence in this critical subject. In reading and science, proficiency levels were even lower.
Kristen Briggs saw the kids she worked with at Lincoln High improve academically even as she continued to raise the bar and expect more from them. In one instance, she fought for permission to teach them using the original version of Arthur Miller's play The Crucible, even though others in the school felt they should read a simplified adaptation.
"If given the chance, they can do whatever anybody else can do," Briggs said of her students. "They just need somebody to believe in them and give them the time and the help."
Briggs has gone on to teach at a city charter school that isn't subject to the LIFO rule, where she said she feels much more secure. "I'm confident in my teaching," she said, "and that's what these decisions ought to be based on."
The right to a solid education and access to great teachers like Briggs ought to be fundamental in America. A good school can be a great equalizer, helping to erase generational poverty. But schools can't be excellent if they're pushing their most talented educators out the door.
When I was chancellor of public schools in Washington, we got rid of LIFO, and I urge policymakers in Philadelphia and throughout Pennsylvania to do the same. It's time to make decisions that are in the best interests of students.
Michelle Rhee is the founder and CEO of StudentsFirst and a former head of Washington's public schools. She is scheduled to meet with teachers in Philadelphia and discuss the recent layoffs today.