According to Dana Goldstein, the acronym LIFO did not come up in education discussions until May 19, 2010. In 2009, officials referred to “last in, first out” rules, but they did not use the acronym. Goldstein did some detective work to determine how and when the acronym entered education discussion. (The term “last in, first out” came up in education discussion in 2009, but people used the phrase, not the acronym.)
From what I can tell, the first American use of the LIFO acronym to refer to teacher seniority protections came on May 19, 2010 in an Education Week op-ed by Eric Hanushek, a prominent Stanford University education researcher and fellow at the free-market Hoover Institution. Hanushek introduced readers to the acronym and argued that ending LIFO would be a good way for cash-strapped states to cut costs during a recession.
I emailed Hanushek to ask him how he got the idea to apply “LIFO” to education. “I just know [the term LIFO] from accounting — and my use just picked up on the standard accounting jargon, which seemed to characterize the [teacher seniority] rules perfectly,” he wrote back. Now that teacher layoffs are a reality because of the recession, Hanushek wrote, people are paying more attention to the problem of good, young teachers losing their jobs because of seniority rules.
The New York Post used the acronym on January 25, 2011; according to Goldstein, over 300 news reports have used it since then.
Does the use of the acronym affect the discussion? It probably does. I don’t see a conspiracy in the use of the term–but, as Goldstein points out; “the acronym powerfully recalls one of the most potent critiques of teachers’ unions, that they provide incompetents with job protections for life.” It is hard not to hear “life” in “LIFO.”
In any case, it’s interesting that the acronym has such a short history in education discussion. And it’s generally good to know where terms come from, or at least to ask.