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The problem of 'first-hired, last-fired'

Even putting aside things like work rules and union contracts, layoffs are hard. You've got to be a cold soul to call someone you've known for years into your office and wreck their economic stability, their daily routine, their sense of self-worth. And so in good times, there are probably fewer layoffs then there should be. People try to manage employees who aren't carrying their weight rather than go through the rigmarole of firing them.

In that way, there can be a benefit to tight times when layoffs become unavoidable. They allow businesses to shed bad employees who should've been let go years earlier. But as Seyward Darby notes, this doesn't happen in most school systems. There, they follow a "first-hired, last-fired" rule, where the newest employees get kicked out first. The absence of discretion ensures that there's no silver-lining at all.

These systems do have something to recommend them: Older employees are more expensive, and so there can be a bias against retaining them that's separate from any measure of quality. If two first-year teachers cost as much as one high-flying veteran, you might end up with an education system that pushes veterans out, and that thus attracts less talent because it's understood that you can't make a good career teaching. But that doesn't militate towards something like "first-hired, last-fired." It militates towards developing objective quality metrics that a teacher could use to make the case that he or she was fired unreasonably.

By Ezra Klein  |  June 7, 2010; 3:03 PM ET
Categories:  Education  
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Good post.

I have two words for you.


It works in the private sector it should work for teachers and ALL unions. Now they mostly fight this to the death but that only proves the point that it works and its right.

You want to know where its REALLY tough? how about a school district that has teachers that go out regularly for being sick with cancer for example. Teachers start the year in school but a couple weeks in they go out and don't come back or come back on an irregular schedule. That really negatively affects 20-25 young minds. Then if you have a young child where that happens habitually it can become an issue.

In my school one of my wife's friends is forever complaining about our school because of this. Her daughter (like mine) is in 3rd grade and has yet to have had (since kindergarten) a teacher that completed the school year for her. Her daughter struggles and she complains all the time about it. She's gone to the "director of curriculum" about it and nothing. now I get that there needs to be care and concern for the teacher that is sick just like anyone else but why is there never a concern (or very little) for the 25-30 kids he or she is teaching and the fragmented education they're getting? What's the long term cost of that?

Posted by: visionbrkr | June 7, 2010 3:15 PM | Report abuse

All due respect Ezra, but you obviously have never experienced layoffs under a collective bargaining agreement. Seniority is always the bedrock, and requires last-hired, first-fired, without regard to anything remotely resembling relative contribution.

Posted by: wendellbell | June 7, 2010 3:19 PM | Report abuse

Without the seniority of collective bargaining, the hiring and firing is rarely done objectively. I've known more than one boss whose employee(s) saved them repeatedly from doing stupid things, and pushed them to doing things they did not want to do that ended up helping the boss or the company or what have you. Yet they wanted to (and often eventually did) fire these interlopers because they were cramping their style. Their style being to waste money, make irrational corporate commitments, and either quickly (or slowly) run the given business into the ground.

That is, sometimes the most contributive members are fired at the first opportunity, because they make the most trouble for the boss, or for the fat-and-comfortable management. I've seen layoff preferences based on ideology or "sudden managerial panic" (i.e: I can't pay the bills! The only solution is completely eviscerate the company, offend everybody, burn all my bridges, and then sit down and think about how to solve this problem without any help or resources!").

On the other hand, I've heard stories of where entire divisions were moved around and weird, non-functional splits in the bureaucracy were created (this is a gummint position), just to get rid of a bad and expensive hire.

I've been through the layoff cycle 4 different times now. There was not a single case where it was done rationally, though the people managing the layoff cycles were not hamstrung by any sort of collective bargaining agreement.

Layoffs usually happen when money is short and the business is floundering, or when the supervisor or boss wants to get rid of a good, but irritating, troublemaker, yet doesn't want that to impact anything else . . . and the decisions made usually aren't very good. And the problems with collective bargaining agreements suggest making the hire-fire cycle more rational is probably just a pipe dream.

Posted by: Kevin_Willis | June 7, 2010 3:32 PM | Report abuse

I would say Ezra is 'waking up' finally for the horrible system Schools use when it comes to employing / firing Teachers. The current system is the 'disease' for this country. Ed Sec Duncan & President are doing good things there, but too small. We need effectively all states to have this 'merit / result oriented' employment for Teachers regardless of their age or seniority.

One single California Teachers Association dwarf all the good work current Admin is doing. We need some solid political creativity in 'blowing off this Teacher Union' business once and for all.

I know, with Dems that is not going to happen; but without this change it is hard to imagine bright future for this country. So much precious tax dollars are wasted as interests of Teacher Unions, Students, Parents and Tax payers are 'not aligned'.

The deal will be when Progressive Political forces start pressurizing Teacher Unions. That is why it is important that Ezra and Matts of the world keep pounding the table here.

Posted by: umesh409 | June 7, 2010 3:42 PM | Report abuse

I will support this when there is a validated metric for measuring teaching effectiveness. I say this as an award-winning teacher (at the college level).

Posted by: Frank43 | June 7, 2010 4:42 PM | Report abuse


OK then. I'll support single payer when there's NO Medicare fraud.


you've got as much of a chance of progressives pressurizing teachers unions as Republicans pushing hard against oil companies.

Posted by: visionbrkr | June 7, 2010 5:02 PM | Report abuse

I work for a unionized library system that is laying off approximately 1/3 of its employees, about 340 people.

I completely support the union, however, I don't support the union rule that layoffs have to be done by seniority. We're losing a lot of young enthusiastic people. We're losing a lot of computer expertise. And we're keeping some people who are just filling chairs.

There's no way they could lay off 1/3 of their employees and have it not be a tragedy. But - it's a tragedy.

Posted by: fillanzea | June 7, 2010 5:14 PM | Report abuse


Lots of people are in jobs where you can't directly measure quality. Merit pay still works.

I remember being in High School - it was very obvious to pretty much everyone which teachers were excellent, which ones were okay, and which ones were so weak you could skip half of the courses and still get a B+. I really doubt that there will be a lot of confusion as to who deserves to be well paid and who doesn't.

Posted by: justin84 | June 7, 2010 5:16 PM | Report abuse

Speaking of unions... what about the union in which oil rig workers participate? I haven't heard much about such a union lately... which is somewhat surprising: my understanding was that such a union was paid to be a watchdog of employee and public safety.

Teachers' unions are of the same bent: they exist as political and profiteering machines, to the detriment of public education and public finance. What seems to be needed is a national Right To Work law giving workers and employers absolute authority to hire non-union workers in public education and other fields.

Posted by: rmgregory | June 7, 2010 5:19 PM | Report abuse

Very few of us who work in any industry outside of sales/workers on commission receive "merit pay." Rather, good performance is rewarded with a promotion, more responsibility, and a corresponding increase in pay.

Supposedly, there should be a paper trail of teacher evaluations and performance over the course of a teachers career that would provide guidance for which teachers to lay off.

Posted by: constans | June 7, 2010 5:28 PM | Report abuse


I don't see why you'd support a union that lets 1/3 of its membership get laid off. Unions all over the country are sacrificing jobs for the modestly paid, enthusiastic young guns so the overpaid old guys can keep their cushy spots without so much as a 1% pay cut.

Without the union, you'd be able to keep your dues for each paycheck. It would have been easier to fire the guys filling chairs, and so they already wouldn't be around. Wages would be a bit lower too (more so for those making a lot right now than entry level I'd imagine), but then again they would be at a more sustainable level.

Posted by: justin84 | June 7, 2010 5:29 PM | Report abuse

Constans, isn't giving raises for strong performance a form of merit pay?

Agree with your second point.

Posted by: justin84 | June 7, 2010 5:34 PM | Report abuse


If a company has effective management, there won't be any pressure for a union. Unions have employment contracts to save the employees from the caprices of managers who lack the ability to effectively, well, manage. In that, your post is right, "Times are going well, so I don't have to do my job of ensuring my organization is as effective as it can be."

There are virtually no union contracts that say an employer can't discipline or fire an employee: these are called "Management Rights". The problem arises when managers are incapable or unwilling to do their jobs, which undermines the organization and leads to more layoffs and budget cutting than would be necessary.

Merit pay is along the same lines... everyone wants to think they get the raise because they're better than others. No one wants to think, as is often the case, that it's because they rub their boss the right way regardless of their performance.

Posted by: Jaycal | June 7, 2010 5:45 PM | Report abuse

Teachers are just one part of the school social system. To implement systemic change, chances are that other parts of the system also need to be changed like:

-lines of authority
-resource allocation (from rooms to computers to buses for field trips, etc)
-curriculum design and implementation
-administrative goals/rewards
-scheduling and academic school year
-parental involvement

despite these and other factors, it is teacher tenure that gets all of the play in the media, mostly because its easy to understand at a superficial level and conservatives love to try and stick it to any kind of union for any reason.

The harlem children's project is the only systemic response to student performance I have seen.

BTW without some kind of seniority system (not absolute but taking seniority into consideration), older more expensive teachers will be the first to go, whether or not they are effective because when cutting education budgets, which is all the rage given the recession, administrators care more about the bottom line and getting their schools staffed with the money they have and not evaluating whether a veteran teacher is an inspirational leader to his/her students or faculty. In fact, many administrators would like to get veteran, outspoken teachers out because those teachers with institutional knowledge are often perceived by the administration as challenging their authority.

Posted by: srw3 | June 7, 2010 5:49 PM | Report abuse

I support the union because it's not their fault that the city decided to cut our budget by $20 million.
I support the union because I've also worked for a non-unionized library, and I was working unpaid overtime four to five days a week, with no extra pay for late nights or weekends.
I support the union because, when a coworker decided I deserved to be hazed and bullied, I knew that it wasn't going to put my job in danger.
I support the union because when you're only getting $40,000 a year for a job that requires a Master's degree, in one of the most expensive cities in the country, you NEED good health care and benefits to make up for it.
I can't make up a parallel universe where the library isn't unionized and compare the results. But I can say that every day I look at librarian jobs where the salaries are ridiculously low, the benefits are ridiculously bad, and I can't believe that's a better situation.

Posted by: fillanzea | June 7, 2010 7:02 PM | Report abuse


I don't know if you meant to rank your list by order of importance but if you did I'd think parental involvement should be near the top of the list. Too many parents expect at the youngest years for schools to be daycare organizations for them. Without the additional help at home students can and do struggle. I'd love to see a study that linked parental involvement and how strong a student is and how far they go in their schooling.

Posted by: visionbrkr | June 7, 2010 7:17 PM | Report abuse

--"It militates towards developing objective quality metrics"--

Thus does Klein continue his futile search for the magic bean that would give its government bearer the same incentives and responsibilities that adhere to folks whose livelihoods swing on the choices they make with their own assets. "quality metrics"!!! Gad, but of course!!!

It's the exact same stupidity fueling the destruction of the health care industry, the same stupidity that contributes to the waste and inefficiency of such disgraces as Amtrak and the Post Office, and every regulatory agency one cares to name.

There is no magic bean, Klein. You can diddle the parameters until you're blue in the face, and the bureaubots will still be incompetent and demanding more of the citizenry's treasure.

Posted by: msoja | June 7, 2010 7:31 PM | Report abuse

@vb: there was no meaning to the order of the other factors that play into school effectiveness. The point is that teachers work under lots of constraints that effe3ct the performance of their students and are mostly invisible to casual observers, whether parents of pundits, but the only metric that people talk about on school reform is teacher's salary and benefits and how they are ruining schools. It's a bunch of hooey.

Posted by: srw3 | June 7, 2010 7:51 PM | Report abuse


I would say that if you have a student in various levels of schooling and want to admit it you realize what teachers go through. You also realize the different things that teachers in inner city schools go through vs what suburban districts go through. That being said it shouldn't warrant IMO irresponsible behavior like first hired last fired. There needs to be a reasonable way to handle this. As i've said I'm all for merit pay and had a real issue that in NJ (in my district) we had older teachers voting for layoffs while younger ones voted for wage freezes. I thought the older ones should have realized where they once were and made sacrifices for the betterment of their students (ie smaller class sizes etc.) But that didn't happen.

Posted by: visionbrkr | June 7, 2010 8:30 PM | Report abuse

--"There needs to be a reasonable way to handle this."--

The unreasonableness is inherent in the usurpation of the rights and responsibilities of free people in the name of your stupid collective good.

Collectivism, by its nature, divorces the delivery of goods and services from all the normal checks and balances that a free market automatically and invisibly and without effort delivers twenty four seven.

Freedom is the reasonable way. Forced government schooling is unreasonable by its very nature.

It is unreasonable to think that you can wish human nature to be other than it is. Teachers who are beholden to politicians for their jobs will conduct themselves accordingly, that is, in a manner that satisfies the requirements of the bureaucracy, and not in a manner that is tied to the ostensible reasons associated with their jobs.

Posted by: msoja | June 7, 2010 9:45 PM | Report abuse

ezra --

this whole last hired thing would be a lot more interesting if it weren't based on the false notion that masses of teachers are actually being fired. claims of teacher jobs saved by the stimulus are pretty clearly exaggerated as are predictions of layoffs that are being passed off as real/ actual numbers.


Posted by: alexanderrusso | June 7, 2010 11:09 PM | Report abuse

This is one of the many reasons I just don't like unions. They encourage laziness and/or ineptitude in employees who know they can't get fired.

Employees who are part of an union can't be fired, unless they are caught committing a major offense (think along the lines of criminal offenses, and not minor ones), or the company/organization is going under.

From personal experience, I know bad employees thrive in those unions. Even when they try to fire them (for backstabbing, ineptitude, and unethical behavior), the union gets involved and sues, the bad employee gets the job back, and a lateral move or even a promotion to another area.

The closest thing I can compare a union to is the mob. But I guess that isn't a fair comparison to the mob, now is it? They may be just as corrupt and ruthless, but at least they retain their talent, and actually do get rid of bad employees (RIP, bad mob employee).

Posted by: JERiv | June 8, 2010 8:02 AM | Report abuse

Obviously there is little point to a "debate" where everyone brings their own "facts." I fail to understand why so many conservatives come here to challenge factual assertions by Ezra with fantasies of their own. Ezra certainly isn't listening. Is it just singing to the choir? Is some deep-seated psychological need met by spouting fantasies on a Washington Post blog?

When your argument starts with "I don't believe the official statistics" you are admitting you don't want to be a part of the conversation Ezra started. You're saying you want to hijack Ezra's discussion.

JERiv -- the plural of anecdote is not data. Just because you have known some poor unionized employees or unions does not mean anything about unions as a whole or unionized employees as a whole. It may be hard to believe, but your experience is not the whole of the world. Statements that generalize based on personal experience do more to reveal the poster's ignorance than anything about the subject being discussed.

I find it very interesting that the "freedom" arguments have gotten so extreme folks will now advocate against compulsory public education. I never realized I was being denied my freedom when the state took the time to educate me and provide me with useful skills I could use to support myself. I'm sure we'd be much better off with millions of starving uneducated children around!

Posted by: jjhare | June 8, 2010 8:47 AM | Report abuse


I appreciate your story, but I can't help but think of the 1/3 of your fellow workers - most of them younger and recently out of school with lots of debt for their bachelor/masters degrees - who simply aren't employable at $40k/yr + $15k/yr in benefits. The inflated union compensation structure sent a false price signal to lots of people to get the credentials for a library job.

I'm okay with unions looking out for the safety of workers and making sure they aren't harrassed. I'm not sure why management would let such damaging horseplay go on unchecked but for whatever reason if they are I can't complain about a union stepping in for that reason.

Anyway, without the union pay structure, wages would initially fall by a bit, but somehow I'm guessing you wouldn't be able to attract many people with advanced degress to a job paying $30k/yr with weak/no benefits. Inasmuch as these are valuable jobs, wages would need to remain high enough to attract people into that line of work. In all likelihood, a lot of the excess cost problem is with senior unionized workers who are making a lot more than $40k/yr (or senior unionized workers in other fields that the city is overpaying at the expense of 1/3 of the library workers). There is no free lunch. Yes, it was the city and not the union that chose to cut the budget, but then there is no money tree. Tax revenue is down sharply and lots of taxpayers are hurting already - being a city manager is not an enviable position these days.

With no union interference in the structure of employment, you'd have far fewer overpaid deadwood workers to begin with, and probably a leaner workforce in general. Between that and modestly lower compensation, you might only have to get rid of the bottom 5-10% in a downturn, and this 5-10% actually would be the worst employees, not simply the youngest.

Posted by: justin84 | June 8, 2010 9:11 AM | Report abuse


I think the point of most anti-union comments isn't that unionized employees are all bad, but merely that unions enable and preserve the employment of the worst employees along with an unsustainable wage structure. Without a union, some of the bad employees shape up out of fear of being fired, and others would be let go. I personally know a lot of unionized employees and for the most part they are good people and hard workers. However, these same people usually have their fair share of horror stories about fellow employees, who have seniority and nothing to fear, and about how union work rules prevent them from going above and beyond (especially doing extra work without pay).

On the education issue, I'd imagine most (if not all) of the freedom guys would prefer vouchers and are okay with public education funding, just not public education provision. That said, I have seen some make arguments against government funding as well.

Posted by: justin84 | June 8, 2010 9:21 AM | Report abuse

--"I find it very interesting that the "freedom" arguments have gotten so extreme folks will now advocate against compulsory public education."--

It's a wonder, isn't it? How could anyone who believes in freedom have a problem with compulsory government stuff? Weird.

Have you ever read Bastiat's "Seen and Unseen"? You should look it up. Positing the non-existence of compulsory government "education" in no means is equal to positing the non-existence of education. To equate the two shows some lack in one's education.

Posted by: msoja | June 8, 2010 9:28 AM | Report abuse

msoja - try being less of a hothead zealot. More people will listen to you.

Frank43 - well, is a flawed metric really worse than a metric arbitrarily based on an individual's passage of time? All or nothing generally leads to no improvements.

Posted by: dHoser | June 8, 2010 1:30 PM | Report abuse

Ezra, you fail to address the most overlooked problem in public school education today: classroom size. When a teacher gets fired, there are one of two options: hire another teacher or double the classroom size.

Right now, as increasing demands are being put on teachers, classroom numbers are only getting largers. During the last school year, one friend's South Side Chicago 5th grade class had 42 students, nearly all with zero social or familial support systems. A fine veteran teacher, she's had opportunities to leave her troubled school, but chose to stay. Her concern was that she'd be replaced by a teacher with little experience and/or dedication to her students. What's her reward? Her school is now being closed after being deemed "Failing."

My sister's facing classroom sizes of just under 40 students next August in her San Antonio middle school. Despite the accolades she's received both in CA and TX, she wonders how she'll teach 37 kids math in 50 minutes.

Posted by: GordonsGirl | June 8, 2010 5:33 PM | Report abuse

--"More people will listen to you."--

Yeah, I shouldn't want to offend thieves and looters.

Posted by: msoja | June 8, 2010 6:17 PM | Report abuse

To say your beginning example is revolting is an understatement. You are implying that a person who has a debilitating condition such as cancer should be thrown out to the street no matter the job because they can't always be there. If you were to say they were exaggerating illness, you might have a compelling argument. But you are simply implying that you should not have a job if you are ill. You don't have a case.

msoja: Stop being a big baby and weak anarchist. The government is in everything around you, from the food you eat and the water you drink to the bed you're sleeping in. You are obviously taking that for granted when you talk like that. The "freedom" you speak of is chaos, something society frowns upon at best.

Posted by: neversaylie | June 9, 2010 5:37 AM | Report abuse

--"The government is in everything around you, from the food you eat and the water you drink to the bed you're sleeping in."--

Shhh. People will think you're about to use the "socialist" word.

Posted by: msoja | June 9, 2010 11:17 AM | Report abuse

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