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Yes, Experience Matters, but Great Teaching Matters Most

Note: Rick Hess is on sabbatical through May 6th. If you're missing him, you might try to catch him while he's out and about discussing his new book Cage-Busting Leadership (available here, e-book available here). For updates on when he might be in your neck of the woods, check here. Meantime, a tremendous lineup of guest stars has kindly agreed to step in while Rick's gone and share their own thoughts on the opportunities, challenges, implications, and nature of cage-busting leadership.

Guest blogging this week are teachers from Teach Plus. Guest blogging today is Sarah Zuckerman. Sarah was a teacher in Indianapolis Public Schools, the majority of her nine years spent at the Key Learning Community, a Multiple Intelligence magnet school, where learning is done through interdisciplinary projects. As an art teacher, she is deeply committed to enabling students to develop as rigorous and curious thinkers. Over her career, Sarah has received numerous awards and fellowships and recognition for her work, including the Sontag Prize for Urban Education, and is an alumna of the Teach Plus Teaching Policy Fellowship. Currently, she is finishing her M.Ed at Harvard Graduate School of Education.

As the 2010 school year came to a close, a group of Indianapolis teachers gathered together, tired from a long day's work, but excited to catch up on what was happening in our schools across the city. It was time for the now-annual layoffs, and we were comparing notes on who was told they would not have a job the next fall.

Among the laid off teachers were new parents, others who had just bought homes, some who had even won Teacher of the Year awards; all were being laid off in the early years of their careers because our districts used years of seniority as the only measure to determine who kept his or her job in times of fiscal crisis. This policy, known as Last In, First Out (LIFO), had historically guided all layoff decisions in our district, and was considered a fair measure. But on this spring day, after another year of hard work with our students, we found nothing fair about quality-blind layoffs, and we decided to do something about it.

We recognized the importance of years of service in the classroom, and understood that early career teachers were still developing their skills. We all appreciated the guidance and leadership of the many veteran teachers who were masters in the art of teaching, but unfortunately, we also knew some teachers who should not have been in the classroom. We found it outrageous that job performance was not a factor in layoff decisions.

With predicted IPS enrollment shortages, we knew this layoff trend would continue annually, forcing committed teachers with strong potential out of the classroom. Beyond creating a cycle of teacher attrition, we knew quality-blind staffing policies were harmful to children. In Indianapolis, entire school communities were dismantled when 20-40 percent of their teaching staffs were cut annually. Though some of these teachers were offered jobs again in the fall, many had already accepted jobs in charter schools or higher paying township schools. As a result, LIFO was disproportionately impacting the kids in our city's lowest-performing school district.

There had to be a way of making necessary cuts that better served students, and we decided to lead that change. To do so, we needed the support of both the district and the union.

We met with the Indianapolis Education Association, our local teacher's union, and working together, wrote two key reforms to the existing policy that would take performance into account (along with seniority) when our district faced job cuts. Though seemingly minor, this reform was substantial; nationally, it was one of the first policy changes that introduced teacher performance as one of many metrics in school staffing decisions.

From there, we went on to publish a report entitled The Domino Effect: How Seniority Based Reassignment Impacts Teachers and Students. This report outlined the unintended consequences of LIFO in schools. The combination of our voices from the classroom, coupled with research and predicted impact, generated a lot of attention from education policymakers across our state.

In the spring of 2011, Senate Bill 1 was introduced in the Indiana Senate, and several of us provided testimony to the House Education Committee on how the quality-blind layoffs affected our schools, and the implications this had at a state level. I shared the story of an amazing teacher who left his career at a township school to come to IPS because of our school's Multiple Intelligences program. Though he had seven years of experience teaching in another district, he was laid off after two years in IPS, because the policy ignored both his talent and his experience outside of the district. I spoke of how costly this policy was for program-specific professional development, and the difficulties in keeping a school's mission and curriculum intact with annual cuts to strong and promising teachers.

When Senate Bill 1 became law, it officially ended Last In, First Out in Indiana. In just under a year, a group of classroom teachers had helped drive a cage-busting change in our own district and then leveraged that experience to help change state law. By sharing the reality of how LIFO hurt our students, our classrooms, our colleagues and our profession, we were able to change the conversation, and offer a solution that benefited both students and teachers.

While critics of this change feel that the new policy favors young teachers, this is not the case. This policy favors good and great teachers and prioritizes keeping these teachers in the classroom. While research shows that experience does matter in classrooms, it also tells us that experience alone does not equal effective teaching, and that the LIFO policies were cutting teachers just as they were reaching their peak effectiveness. Can you imagine choosing your child's pediatrician based solely on years of experience? We all know that experience is important, but it doesn't provide a complete picture of one's ability to perform.

It is time we take an approach that takes multiple factors into decisions that impact our children by respecting and protecting what matters most: great teaching. Our state law now requires districts to emphasize teacher performance over seniority when layoffs must be made.

Policy change is a vital first step, but we must remain committed for the long haul to ensure that smart implementation follows. Today, we still have a long way to go to improve the quality of education in Indiana and nation, but for us, the teachers who sat at the table, something had changed in how we viewed our challenges. Teachers can lead change; we were proof. One step at a time, one conversation, one idea, one bold act, followed by another and another, can turn the tide.

- Sarah Reynolds Zuckerman

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