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You Bet Your LIFO

So, more harangues about last-in/first-out (LIFO) policies, tenure due process, seniority and how much fun Joel Klein had firing teachers. Do veteran teachers need protection against unfair dismissal? Some--to ensure that we keep the good ones? Or none at all? And who are the good ones? In my experience, one parent's genius teacher who finally tapped little Tyler's passion for writing is another parent's weirdo with a ponytail.

Back in the 80s, a downturn in the auto industry forced many families in my district to leave the community. Enrollment dropped. The district had too many teachers. We had a RIF--a reduction in force, resulting in a process familiar to anyone who's taught under a union contract: bumping. The middle school physical education teacher was bumped into a high school chemistry slot (because she minored in general science). The promising third-year chemistry teacher was laid off.

Parents were upset to find out that their kids' 7th grade gym teacher was now trying her hand at chemistry. The physical education teacher was upset, too--she was looking at a miserable year where she was never more than a few days ahead of the kids, scrambling to pull together lesson plans and assignments, and dependent on the other chemistry teacher who wasn't happy to see her enthusiastic young colleague walk out the door.

You might think the story is the perfect illustration of the folly of LIFO policies. The district should have let that P.E. teacher go, and kept the chemistry guy, right? Except that in doing so, they would have riffed an extraordinary educator--one who wrote their reproductive health curriculum and later became a Disney Hand Teacher.

In going after all teacher tenure and seniority rules, policy-creators are advocating drop-forge solutions when they should be working with scalpels. The goal is keeping the most valuable, versatile and productive staff, by hiring the right folks in the first place and encouraging them to burnish their talents over time. Reading the national conversation lately, you'd think that all first- and second-year teachers are icons of pedagogical expertise and anyone into a double-digit career span is probably burned out.

Some things worth considering:

• LIFO has different outcomes in a small district, where teachers must do double- and triple-duty to cover a broad curriculum than it does in mega-districts where there's almost always someone standing by with the correct certification requirements. Flexible procedures are key when the teacher force must be reduced.

• Since the research is pretty clear that most teachers don't hit their instructional stride (based on achievement data) until their third or fourth year, as a general strategy LIFO is probably targeting the "least valuable" employees. Lots of exceptions to that rule of course. But letting the least experienced employees go protects investments districts have made in professional development for long-term teachers.

• None of this has much to do with tenure, which is the right to due process before dismissal. The chemistry teacher had just received tenure, which meant that he could only be laid off for cause--including an enrollment-based reduction in force. Tenure and seniority rights are two very different things.

It's very easy to jump to the bottom line here: some teachers cost more than others. Eliminating seniority rights altogether brings the school workplace into line with many businesses. You keep inexpensive new staff and let the pricey teachers go. Efficiency. It's happening every place else, why not in schools?

Not valuing experience, time-honed skills or wisdom is a particularly American trait. We're Wal-Mart Nation, home of the lowest price, no matter what the real cost. Hard to say which has diminished teacher quality more: valuing longevity over talent, or the wages and working conditions teachers must routinely accept.

Smart districts and unions develop language to hang on to their best teachers when money is short. "Highly Qualified Teacher" language in NCLB has also forced many schools to re-structure their bumping procedures. Things worked out for us--the chemistry teacher eventually returned, and later became the district's Teacher of the Year as well as the chief negotiator. Ironic.

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