August 14, 2020

Celebrating Our Best Teachers by Keeping them in the Classroom

By Krista Kaput

In early August, Qorsho Hassan was named Minnesota’s 2020 Teacher of Year—the first Somali American to be recognized for the honor. When accepting the award, Hassan shared inspiring words about how she approaches teaching and her students: “They run the classroom with me…I am radically student-centered because I’m constantly trying to be who I needed when I was younger.” Based on the feedback from supervisors, students, and peers that drove her recognition, Hassan is exactly the type of teacher Minnesota students need—and as a teacher of color, she is also a much-needed role model in a state where teacher diversity is lower than almost anywhere in the nation

Despite her impressive track record, this spring Hassan lost her teaching job in Burnsville due to the district’s “Last In, First Out” (LIFO) policy, which requires teacher layoffs happen based on how long someone has been teaching in the district, and nothing else—not effectiveness, evaluations, or even if their licensure is in a shortage area. Hassan was pushed out of her school, and another teacher moved into her job.

This isn’t the first time this has happened in Minnesota. In 2017, the 2014 Teacher of the Year was laid off due to his district’s LIFO policy. And before that, Minnesota’s 2006 Teacher of the Year met the same fate—a Black teacher laid off from Minneapolis Public Schools only to soon after be named teacher of the year. She later helped write a policy brief with recommendations for increasing teacher diversity, including reforming quality-blind layoffs policies. 

Luckily they are all still in teaching, but not everyone impacted by LIFO can say the same. Some teachers get LIFO’d multiple times, never building enough seniority in a district to feel fully established. It is a real barrier to increasing teacher diversity when the new teachers of color coming into the profession are the same ones who are pushed out through LIFO. Unfortunately, this is something we need to address now, given the looming financial impact of COVID-19. 

Didn’t the MN Legislature Repeal LIFO? 

During the 2017 Minnesota legislative session, the Legislature removed the requirement that LIFO be the statewide default for determining teacher layoffs when districts and unions don’t negotiate a layoff policy. Now they must negotiate a policy. While this was a victory, it didn’t prohibit LIFO policies from being written into teacher contracts. Seniority is still the bottom line for Minnesota’s districts. You can see the LIFO teacher contract policies of Minnesota’s 45 largest school districts here. 

LIFO Policies Remove High-Quality Teachers of Color

With a projected $4.7 billion state deficit, the outlook for district budgets is bleak. And since salaries and benefits normally account for more than 80% of district costs, teacher layoffs are unfortunately likely. With LIFO in place, this means disproportionate layoffs for teachers of color, who are more concentrated in the newer cohort of the teacher workforce. 

Moreover, many contracts specify that Tier 1 and Tier 2 licensed teachers either do not accrue seniority or must be laid off first, which is problematic given that 21% of Minnesota’s teachers of color and Indigenous teachers teach on those licenses.

These layoffs have ripple effects throughout the profession. Research has found that teachers of color feel frustrated, fatigued, and isolated when they are the only one or one of a few teachers of color in their school. Critical mass matters.

LIFO Policies Harm Students

LIFO policies also negatively impact students—and particularly students of color and low-income students. Data from California found that schools that had larger percentages of students of color faced more layoffs due to LIFO, and research from Washington state found that Black students were significantly more likely to attend a school where a teacher had been laid off due to LIFO. 

National data also shows that newer teachers are more likely to work in schools that serve large percentages of low-income students, which suggests that LIFO disproportionately impacts students from low-income families and communities. 

Multiple Measures Needed For Determining Layoffs

By laying off effective teachers, LIFO policies do not put students or their needs first. In fact, only 16% of teachers laid off under LIFO would also be dismissed in a system that used performance, instead of seniority, as the deciding factor. 

To address this, many states require districts to use multiple measures—including teacher effectiveness and performance—when determining teacher layoffs. This respects collective bargaining while also leaving a role for seniority, but in combination with other critical factors. Moreover, nearly two-thirds of teachers support using multiple measures when determining teacher layoffs. 

State policies like those in Florida and Michigan provide examples of how teacher layoffs can be done in a way that keeps great teachers in the classroom. Minnesota must act now to address LIFO before we push out the teachers that we’ve worked hard to recruit, out of the classrooms that need them.

Qorsho Hassan’s former administrator summed it up best when she tweeted a congratulatory note to Hassan: “I’m sad that we couldn’t keep her on our team. Keeping strong teachers, especially those who are BIPOC, is a challenge for districts. As a community & as an education system, we need to dismantle those challenges because they perpetuate inequity and harm our students.”