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Minneapolis Federation of Teachers: Don't shut us out

Protesters from the group Students for Education Reform
Courtesy of SFER
Protesters from the group Students for Education Reform gathered outside MFT's Nordeast headquarters last week.

On a chilly Wednesday evening, community members gathered outside the offices of the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers (MFT). Because MFT decided to close its contract negotiations to the public, the community stood out in the cold waiting while the committee made consequential decisions about the Minneapolis education system.

Protesters held flashlights and signs, and wore nametags over their mouths which read “38%” — representing the percentage of African-American students that graduate in four years out of the Minneapolis Public Schools district. Other minority populations are graduating at similar rates — suggesting that something is clearly wrong with how we are educating our students. By closing the contract negotiations, MFT shut out community input that is vital to addressing dismal graduation rates.

MFT contract negotiations are held every two years in order to frame the goals of the teachers whom the organization supports. The committee discusses a variety of issues that concern both labor (such as salary and working hours) and educational practices (such as testing strategies and teaching methods). The contract plays a large role in how schools function, which is why the community has a vested interest in witnessing and understanding the negotiation process. Seeing that certain students are failing year after year implies that the current structure is not working.

A disappointing statement

In an attempt to calm the protesters, MFT President Lynn Nordgren announced a few of the goals that the committee was in the process of reviewing. She stated that MFT was working toward creating smaller class sizes so that students can receive more one-on-one attention. This was a disappointing statement. The dream of small class sizes is one that every parent, student and teacher has wished for. Unfortunately, it has not come true. We need to find solutions within the budget we are given.

Alexa Slezak
Alexa Slezak

Nordgren also stated that MFT is working toward “cultural competency” and is trying to encourage more teachers of color in the classroom. This phrase was perhaps used to propose a solution for the poor graduation rates of students of color, as well as to satisfy the predominantly African-American audience, but if MFT hopes to call itself a “culturally competent” work force, they need to make a more serious attempt to include families and leaders of color in their discussions. Opening contract negotiations to the public would be a good start.

Although MFT has isolated itself from certain communities, they succeeded in connecting with students like me. As a white, middle-class student, I had a fantastic experience in the Minneapolis Public Schools system. My teachers were extremely supportive. They had faith in me as a learner and were able to connect with my family. I was not shut out. Unfortunately, my experience was not that of many students and families of color and in poverty in Minneapolis.

Unlock every student's potential

It is time to make a genuine attempt to include those who have been failed by our system for so long. We must unlock the full potential of every student. Doing so will not only help those who are failing, but will challenge high-performing students as well. By creating a competitive learning environment, Minneapolis will be strengthened as a whole.

Closing the educational gap is a first step in narrowing disparities that exist across all areas of American life, and representatives of the Twin Cities school district can be leaders in closing the opportunity gap. They will lead by overcoming petty politics and refusing to negotiate on the issue we care about most: our kids. They will succeed by keeping the most effective ways of teaching in the classroom and bringing light to those that don’t.

Closing teacher negotiations to the public does not challenge us to deal with the current state of the Minneapolis public-school system. Educators and their students can lead the way to a better America, but they will not be able to form a solution without the input of all colors and classes.

Alex Slezak is a member of SFER’s University of Minnesota Chapter and serves on the organization’s Executive Board. She is currently a junior and this is her second year with SFER Minn.

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Comments (8)

If you read MinnPost you'd

SFER

Who started Students For Education Reform? Not students. No, like many other education "reform" groups, it was started by and is funded by right-wing billionaires including the Koch Brothers. The only thing more pathetic than a 20-year old college student lecturing teachers about their contract, is that she has allowed herself to become a pawn of those who want to destroy public education. If any Minneapolis teachers are failing, its those who taught Ms. Slezak.

SFER

Should there not be some disclosure of the funding behind SFER? I realize that would require that the group develop some transparency, but it would also lay bare the motivation and the real meaning of their lofty "goals."

Very proud of these young people

Whenever student activist become interested in educational activism I think it is a good thing. Their message in this case is a good: transparent government is important. As someone who has wished more of the governance of public education were less mysterious to the public, this is a great step in the right direction.

Transparency is great for

Transparency is great for everyone but people like Chris Stewart and SFER. Where does SFER get their money? Where does Stewart get his? The Headwaters Foundation? How much? Stewart's website doesn't even say it is a project of the Headwaters Foundation. How is it possible to spend so much tax-exempt money in pursuit of such obvious political intentions, as the Minneapolis Foundation, the Gates Foundation, and others do? Glass houses and all, Chris.

Sad

Like most other education "reform" groups, Students For Education Reform was created by and funded by right wing billionaires, including - you guessed it- the Koch Brothers. Their astroturfing has now apparently been extended to include college students.

SFER

Surely, there are issues in education that demand solutions. I am glad to see these young people getting involved. Unfortunately, their good intentions and energy are diverted from actions that would really help to make a difference and instead focused on red herrings like whether or not contract negotiations are open to the public.

Class size is an important issue. Referring to small class sizes as a dream and asserting that schools operate within "the budget we are given" is faulty logic. Who gives schools their budgets? Who places the limits? We are able to build playgrounds for millionaires, but we can't adequately fund education? This is like telling hungry families that there is no more money for food, live within your budget. Actually, we are doing that. As a society we tell homeless families there is not enough money for housing. We tell workers there is not enough money for living wages. Now, SFER advocates that we tell students there is not enough money for teachers?

We need solutions to ensure that all children reach their potential. The solutions will come from focusing on the real issues that drive educational disparities, not from astroturf groups funded by corporate reformers staging protests.

SFER and the astroturf school reform movement

When running for re-election to the school board, Carla Bates advocated the new school improvement strategy that requires concessions from teacher: Elimination of seniority and tenure rights for teachers, plus longer hours at Struggling and Target schools serving more than 20% of the district's students. The shift to a more scripted curriculum narrowly focused on prepping students for end of the year high-stakes test probably wouldn't boost reading and math test score unless student spend between 2 to 3 times as much time studying those subjects.

The teacher contact concessions will ensure fewer experienced and more inexperienced classroom teachers. Teacher experience correlates to test scores and other positive outcomes for students. So why give the district authority to fire experienced teachers arbitrarily by eliminating seniority and tenure rights? Until just a few years ago, the district fired all teachers on probationary status (first 3 years post-hire) every year, and selectively rehire those who reapplied for their jobs. That makes no sense if you are trying to close the gap. But it makes sense from the perspective of running the district on a business model a la McKinsey and company.

If you really want to improve the quality of instruction in Struggling and Target schools, you don't eliminate teacher job protections and water-down and narrow the curriculum. Instead, you should retain teachers and refrain from firing them in order to keep experience teachers and allow inexperienced teachers to become experienced teachers. You should have a more student-centered, enriched curriculum which is difficult for new teachers to work with, which is why you want to limit exposure of students to new teachers as much as possible.

The district is once again promoting a school improvement plan that is doomed to fail in its stated goal of closing the achievement gap, because it does not reduce exposure of disadvantaged students to inexperienced teachers and watered down curriculum. It's more of a labor relations agenda masquerading as a school reform agenda. I urge the teachers' union to refuse to give up their seniority and tenure rights, which the district cannot take away unilaterally, and to say no to the longer school day and longer school year for the Struggling and Target schools. No to the shift to a more scripted, teacher centered curriculum that is narrowed and focused on end of the year high-stakes test preparation. No to de-unionizing and de-professionalizing the teaching profession.