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How I went from defending the teachers union to pushing for reform

REUTERS/Sergio Perez
The argument that we must first end poverty (a task that will not end in our life-times) before we can design schools to work better for students doesn't hold water.

I didn’t start out on the education reform side. In fact, if you had asked me about the achievement gap 10 to 12 years ago, I sounded a lot like the teachers union.

mickelsen photo
Lynnell Mickelsen

Since I’m going to be posting on education issues [at the MN Progressive Project], I figured I should explain how and why I  ended up on the reform side.

First, a brief history: I grew up in Arden Hills, graduated from Mounds View Public Schools. Got my first union card in high school. (Thank you, Amalgamated Meat Cutters.) Went to college. Worked in refugee camps in Southeast Asia. Went to journalism school. Became a newspaper reporter. Joined the Newspaper Guild and organized on its behalf. Got married. Started having kids. Followed the Minnesota Law of Return and moved to Minneapolis in 1989.

OK, back to education: Before moving back, I had lived in Chicago, New York, Detroit, Boston and Washington, D.C., and elsewhere. Everywhere I lived, African-American and Latino students were failing in droves. So whenever people criticized Minneapolis Public Schools for its massive achievement gap, my initial attitude was, why single out Minneapolis?

Poor brown kids had been failing in urban schools across this country for decades. I thought it was tragically normal, but didn’t see how public schools could be faulted for it. After all, my three upper-middle-class white kids were thriving in Minneapolis public schools, as were most of their white peers, so obviously the problem couldn’t be the schools because they were working for us.

No, I argued, the schools were just the victims. The real problem was long-term poverty and what it did to families. So, until we first fixed poverty and poor brown parenting, people should lay off the schools.

This was and is how many of my fellow beige DFLers talk about this issue, although in public, people are usually far more earnest and politically correct. We use lots of euphemisms to emphasize that poor brown people aren’t to blame for having screwed-up families and to make sure everyone knows we’re not being racist or judgmental or anything, because we’re Democrats, so we can’t be.
A brief time out. I need to emphasize here that I do think poverty plays a huge role in academic disparities. I do think family life matters. As progressives, we do need to work to end poverty, racism and violence and create a more just and equal world.

And yes, our schools do need more money. And yes, Republicans do suck for opposing us on all of this stuff.

But the argument that we must first end poverty (a task that will not end in our life-times) before we can design schools to work better for students is bullsh-t. And progressives should stop making it.

It’s not an either/or choice. We can do both. We must do both.

In my own case, I regret it took me 10 or more years to realize that actually a big part of the problem is not that too many poor brown people don’t care enough about their own kids. It’s  that too many white middle-class people like me don’t care enough about those same kids.

Because poor brown people did not design our current school system. They don’t sit on the school board or on the union or district negotiating teams or in the state Legislature. In Minneapolis, white middle-class DFLers are sitting in nearly all those seats. And if the system that our tribe created and enabled looks like a modern version of Jim Crow, our political tribe needs to change it.

So what got me here?

1) The freaking data. Under the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act, schools were forced to break down and report academic results demographically — frankly, it was one of the only good things to come out of a bad law. The resulting data showed academic gaps in Minneapolis that were so stark, wide and systematic, I couldn’t shrug them off.

I mean, this is what institutional racism looks like, folks: starkly different outcomes for different groups right here in one of the most progressive cities in America.

Institutional racism does not depend on personal racial bigotry, which is usually on the down low in Minneapolis. Instead, it depends on racial indifference, which is usually on full display.

As I’ve said before, if only 38 percent of white middle-class boys were graduating from high school on time, we’d have already changed the system to do better by them because Holy Christ, that would be a big-time crisis.  But when it’s African-American boys, we’ve mostly wrung our hands and shrugged helplessly.

2) Schools that work. At the same time the demographic data started to roll in, public charter schools started to spring up across the country and in the Twin Cities. And thousands of families — especially on the north side of Minneapolis — voted with their feet.

Granted, most public charters don’t get any better results than public district schools. In fact, some do worse. But in the last five or six years, a handful of public charters in Minneapolis and St. Paul — Hiawatha, Higher Ground, Harvest Prep and others — have started to make great gains with the same demographic that is failing en masse in our traditional district schools.

At first, I brushed this success off as a fluke, or just kill-and-drill or something else that would soon fade. But this success has kept going and more high-performing charters keep opening. These schools are not perfect nor would they work for all kids. (There is no perfect school that works for everyone.)

But after seeing these schools, I no longer think the problem is that we don’t know how to create schools that work for low-income kids of color. Our problem is we’re not willing to do it because this would involve changing the status quo … which upsets our traditional allies in the teachers union … who also happens to be the single largest donor to DFL candidates in this state.

3) Best practices. Successful “beat the odds” schools hire (and retain) the most effective principals and teachers for their students, dismiss ineffective ones and extend the school day or year (because their kids are years behind grade level and need to catch up).

The focus on teacher quality is key because studies show that teachers are the biggest in-school factor in students’ academic success. According to Minneapolis Public Schools’ own data, highly effective MPS teachers average a year and a half worth of gains with their students, year after year. Ineffective MPS teachers average six months — year after year. And these teachers can be right across the hall from each other.

So if your kid gets two lousy teachers in a row, they can end up being two years behind their cousin who had the great teacher across the hall. Just by the luck of the draw.

In short, good teaching really matters. So does time on task, especially for kids who are far behind. Which is why Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson wants to follow these best practices with her “Shift” agenda in the district’s lowest-performing schools.

So far in negotiations, the MFT is turning her down flat.

4) Personally witnessing layoffs by seniority. When all those north side families voted with their feet, enrollment in Minneapolis plunged. Between 2001 and 2011, MPS lost 27 percent of its students … and almost a thousand teaching positions. These mass layoffs laid bare the insanity of making decisions strictly by seniority without regard to performance.

I had three kids in the system during these years and every spring we watched in horror as some of their best teachers were laid off, and almost always replaced by worse ones.

One year, our stellar middle-grades band instructor (and a 12-year veteran of MPS) was laid off and replaced by … a veteran choir teacher who couldn’t play a band instrument or read a band score. The band program quickly fell apart. Under the contract, this was business as usual.

As the schools on the north side closed, their veteran teachers flooded into the more affluent southwest Minneapolis schools. Under the contract, we had to hire from this closed pool to fill any openings. Some of these teachers were great. A lot more were mediocre. Many would talk obliquely about how hard it had been to teach Those Poor Brown Kids on the North Side Whose Parents Were So Screwed Up. Yet when these teachers ended up in classrooms full of white, middle-class kids, it turned out … they weren’t particularly good teachers for white kids either.

Under last-in-first-out seniority rules, we also lost half of our teachers of color. As a result, in 2013, nearly 70 percent of MPS students are kids of color and 85 percent of our classroom teachers are white.

In summary:

Look, I’m a longtime labor supporter. But these kind of staffing rules don’t serve kids or the common good. And in the long run, they don’t serve the labor movement either.

Because no other union reaches as deeply into peoples’ lives for so long and affects what matters to them most — their kids’ future — as the teachers union.

So when people associate a union with hurting their kids’ futures … well, this does more damage to the labor movement than anything the Republicans usually come up with. Because it’s based on people’s personal experience.

And then there’s the race angle. It has taken me 10 or more years to start fully appreciated how racial this issue is.

In Minneapolis, we’re watching an aging white union saying no to best practices even as thousands of kids of color are failing. Which is sort of like doctors refusing to wash their hands while young patients die in droves.

This is bad enough in itself. But it gets worse when progressives organizations and DFL leaders enable and protect this kind of intransigence while proclaiming that we stand for justice and racial equity. And trust me, people of color have, like, noticed this.

Remember all those lovely, gracious God-fearing white people in the South who maybe didn’t like Jim Crow, who felt it was terrible how people of color were treated, but didn’t want to publicly speak out against it or take a stand because it would have caused such a social and political hassle with all their white friends and neighbors?

I swear, history is going to treat us the same way.

Lynnell Mickelsen, co-founder, president and lead organizer of Put Kids First Minneapolis, has been an active Minneapolis Public Schools parent since 1993.

This article first appeared on the MN Progressive Project site.


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Comments (32)

  1. Submitted by Bill Lindeke on 10/17/2013 - 11:14 am.

    thanks Lynell

    this is a passionate moral call to arms.

  2. Submitted by RB Holbrook on 10/17/2013 - 11:54 am.


    Nice. Comparing (via anchoring, if not explicitly) teacher’s unions to proponents of legalized segregation strikes me as just a tad high-handed. You have adopted the techniques of the fanatic right-wingers you tell their acolytes that liberals are the real racists. That is, I must say, an admirable muddying of the issues. You can use your accusations to divert attention from your sad effort at defending charter schools (“Most of them aren’t especially good but a few of them do really, really well.” That proves nothing).

    Of course, it’s all for the “kids,” isn’t it, Ms. Mickelsen? That’s why you can pat yourself on the back about being the real progressive here, even though you’re crusade dovetails nicely with the anti-worker union busters in America.

    PS to MinnPost: Why are you giving so much space to Ms. Mickelsen? I think we all have caught the drift of her opinions, time and time again.

    • Submitted by Lynnell Mickelsen on 10/17/2013 - 12:45 pm.

      I fail to see how asking a union to follow best practices like..

      1) allowing schools to hire the best principals and teachers we can find and dismissing ineffective ones.

      2) increasing the teaching day, so kids who are far behind can catch up;

      3) spreading vacations out throughout the year, so kids don’t lose so much over a 12 week summer break;

      4) offering hiring and retention bonuses to highly effective teachers who choose to work in low-performing schools and scaling up wages faster for new teachers;

      5) using data to track student progress and intervene quickly when kids are falling behind…….

      I fail to see how any of this amounts to union-busting. Do you really think the union should be opposing this stuff and/or staking its identity on rules that don’t serve the public?

      When I was a newspaper reporter, I was a proud member of the Newspaper Guild union and let me tell you………when there was a job opening, my editors could pick the best person from the widest possible pool—i.e. they were NOT forced to hire from a close pool of applicants that no one would have willingly hired.

      It did not take two or more years to get rid of terrible reporters.

      Bonus pay and retention pay was common.

      And this was all done in a union setting.

      For the record, I support unions. I think teachers need a union. But the teachers’ union needs to adapt to the needs of its students and the 21st century. The MFT needs to quit insisting on outdated industrial contracts that don’t serve kids—and elected DFL school board members and legislators should stop protecting its bad behavior.

      If we as DFLers truly believe in social justice, racial equity and public schools that truly serve the public, we as DFLers need to step up and change this.

      • Anonymous Submitted by Anonymous on 10/17/2013 - 01:08 pm.

        Ok I’ll answer your “questions”

        1) The district can already do those things.
        2) Who’s going to pay for the longer day/year?
        3) You must really hate children to take away their summer vacation. Talk about destroying childhood.
        4) How do you know who’s “highly effective” ? You don’t.
        5) Using data – you and your privateer friends want to turn schools into testing factories.

        6) Schools are not the same as newspapers. That is an absurd comparison.

        There’s one way to close the so-called achievement gap: Smaller class size – something you don’t even seem to care about.

      • Submitted by Bruce Johnson on 10/17/2013 - 01:29 pm.

        This comment is a better article than the published article, with its straw men and ad hominem attacks and I, I, I.

      • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 10/17/2013 - 01:58 pm.

        Quick question

        Are you imposing all of these reforms unilaterally, or do you propose discussing these with the teachers first? One might be forgiven they would have some insight as to what constitutes the best practices in education.

        Union busting is demonizing the unions and taking away any leverage they have, leaving employees entirely to the mercy of their superiors (and, ultimately, to the managers of the hedge fund that owns the company that operates the charter school). It doesn’t matter that you’re doing it to “save” unions from the Republicans (“We had to destroy organized labor in order to save it.”). You claim to support unions, and lead off every one of your almost daily posts here with a recitation of what a good union person you are. It doesn’t change the fact that top down impositions of rules for employment violate the basic premise of unionization.

  3. Submitted by Greg Kapphahn on 10/17/2013 - 01:37 pm.

    As Is So Often the Case

    With folks having more passion that rationality,…

    Ms. Mickelson proposes “solutions” to educational “problems” without giving a single thought to where those solutions ultimately take us,…

    to a deeply impoverished educational system where the vast majority of students are FORCED to daily attend schools where,…

    class sizes are far too large,…

    assistance for those struggling due to poverty, lack of facility in English or other special needs are non existent,…

    and their, burned out, exhausted teachers have the status (and education level) of (NON-unionized) ditch diggers,…

    and the, by that time thoroughly destroyed public education system is causing the literacy rate of the city’s residents to DROP year by year,…

    but the people who have invented the “reforms” Ms. Mickelson supports will be making huge profits off the parents who can manage to scrape together the money to send their kids to “charter schools,” many of which will not even be as good as the public schools were before Ms. Mickelson’s so-called “reforms” were initiated.

    As Benjamin Franklin put it, “experience keeps a dear school, but a fool will learn in no other.”

    I hope we will NOT allow the students of the Minneapolis Public Schools to be the victims of Ms. Mickelson’s quest to discover how foolish she was to trust those who were using her as a tool in their quest to mine the education of the children of Minneapolis to maximize their own wealth, and could care less if the vast majority of those children ended up with much poorer outcomes than is currently the case.

    • Submitted by Lynnell Mickelsen on 10/17/2013 - 01:53 pm.

      Speaking of being rational

      ….I honestly don’t see how the mild and sensible changes (see my above list) that Minneapolis Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson, Mayor RT Rybak and other reformers are asking for would lead to such an apocalyptic ending of public education as we know it.

      Your line of argument is sort of like the NRA saying universal background checks will lead to hunters being forced to turn in their rifles.

      Or Michelle Bachman claiming that Obamacare will destroy the nation.

      Or evangelicals saying gay marriage will destroy the family.

      Greg, you’re giving us a passionate and apocalyptic vision. But could you please rationally explain why allowing schools to use the same staffing rules that any healthy organization or non-profit currently uses would lead to a total collapse of the public education system?

      • Anonymous Submitted by Anonymous on 10/17/2013 - 02:33 pm.

        You give yourself a lot of credit Lynnell.

        But could you please rationally explain why allowing schools to use the same staffing rules that any healthy organization or non-profit currently uses would lead to a total collapse of the public education system?

        No one is saying changing staffing rules, alone leads to “total collapse of public education.” Typical deformer arguing. Changing staffing rules is just one part of an overall deformer agenda to turn schools into testing factories, disempower teachers’ unions, and privatize and de-democratize public education. Not to mention exposing all the money spent teaching our kids to private profit.

        But of course you know these things. Attacks on teachers are irrational and immoral. Teachers are part of a system. You and your friends constantly say there is an epidemic of bad teachers who are holding back kids, but you have no proof of this and couldn’t because it is not true. No “reform” could possibly work without the buy in of teachers. To get their buy in you 1) Can’t be attacking them, and 2) you must listen to them. Teachers know what works and they’re not going to buy your disproved notions for improving schools.

        Taking your advice won’t destroy pubic education on its own. It takes a team to do that. You’re just a member of that team.

        • Submitted by Lynnell Mickelsen on 10/19/2013 - 08:05 pm.

          Sigh, we’re back to your Apocalypse Now stuff.

          Rob writes: “Changing staffing rules is just one part of an overall deformer agenda to turn schools into testing factories, disempower teachers’ unions, and privatize and de-democratize public education. Not to mention exposing all the money spent teaching our kids to private profit.”

          Rob, can you give a real-life, on-the-ground example of reformers in the Twin Cities privatizing public education and somehow “exposing all the money” to “private profit? Or turning schools into “testing factories.”?

          And puhleeze, why is stuff like asking for hiring and retention bonuses…..or hiring the best candidate an “attack on teachers?”

          Regarding teacher buy-in. Heck, there’s already plenty of teacher buy-in. The American Federation of Teachers polled its own members and a majority wanted the union to focus more on teacher quality and less on job protection.

          In Minnesota, polls show a majority of public school teachers also support an end to last-in, first out seniority lay-offs.

          Last year, Padilla Spear and Beardsley polled 400 public school teachers in Minnesota. When asked what percentage of teachers are ineffective, TEACHERS THEMSELVES said 17 percent of their colleagues were ineffective—which is similar to what Minneapolis teachers have told me over the years.

          Over 70 percent of teachers thought teachers should be rewarded for strong student improvement. And on and on. So there’s already a lot of buy-in from much of the rank and file.

          Check out more poll results here.

          • Anonymous Submitted by Anonymous on 10/20/2013 - 09:51 am.

            Sure – Eric Mahmoud makes 300k; he pays his wife another 100k; and his kid 30k. How much money is spent on testing, including test prep, the tests themselves, and the time lost in schools on testing?

            As far as testing factories: Did you listen to MinnCan’s education deforum? Don Samuels wants to turn schools into testing factories. I don’t have the exact quote handy, but he said something to the effect that he wants teachers to teach one fact, test it, then move on to the next one.

            And if teachers are buying in to the supe’s “Shift” – why such hysteria on your and your friends part about the teacher negotiations?

            The polls on teachers are baloney, to say the least, Look at MinnCan’s polls – they are clearly rigged with suggestive and misleading questions. Why would we expect teachers to know how many of their peers are “ineffective” – whatever that means? Hardly scientific. As far as “rewarding” teachers for student achievement (I assume you mean higher test scores – which is a different thing) – so-called “merit pay” has been tried many times for like a hundred years and it doesn’t work – teachers want to collaborate not compete.

            Charter School Partners has a plan to open 20 new charters in Minneapolis over the next five years. Charters are public only in the sense that they get public money.

            And you’re really the one to call out progressives as racists when you support a system that is re-segregating our schools. The number one examplar of “reform” is Harvest Prep – 99% black and 90% poor. But I don’t hear you complaining about that. Who’s the racist when your movement is changing the country back to pre-Brown vs. Board of Ed?

          • Anonymous Submitted by Anonymous on 10/20/2013 - 09:58 am.

            BTW – I gave this same explanation to your “who’s getting rich” question the other day – but MinnPost censored my response.

  4. Submitted by Joe Musich on 10/17/2013 - 01:53 pm.

    Explain to me…

    The kind of union do you support for teachers ? What would it look like structurally ? Who could become a member ? How would it represent the interests and rights of the worker ? How would you define these rights and interests ? What would a contract look like ? Who would the contract be between ? What is a teaching day,year ? Have does your union behave in a grieve situation ? How are rates of pay determined ? What are strike worthy situations ? How do you define management’s responsibilities ? What is the recourse if the the contract is broken ? Is your use of the word union more then a hollow word ? Show us it is more than NOTHING ?

    • Submitted by Lynnell Mickelsen on 10/18/2013 - 10:12 am.

      great questions, Joe

      ….and too complicated to get into in a comment thread. But in general, I think unions are at their best when they’re pushing for good wages, benefits and safe conditions on the job.

      I think unions are at their worst when they’re:

      — protecting ineffective workers;

      —trying to block talented people from the applicant pool;

      —refusing to diversify their workforce and pitting older workers against younger workers;

      —trying to micro-manage every tiny thing that comes up on the job.

      I think we still need unions. But we need unions that will adapt to the changing needs of the job and the workforce. I think SEIU has been a great example of this.

  5. Submitted by Ben Horn on 10/17/2013 - 02:46 pm.

    I strongly agree on one point…

    When it comes to elementary schools, one size does not fit all. (I don’t blame teachers as much as the OP does.)

    The traditional model works well for many kids but another type of classroom/school needs to be available for kids who don’t succeed in the traditional system.

    We push underperforming kids through the existing system until they give up and drop out. There need to be alterative models, either as part of MPS or as charter schools. (I would prefer seeing multiple models within MPS, if possible, because there should be more accountability.)

  6. Submitted by Matt Haas on 10/17/2013 - 09:29 pm.

    Your argument might hold water

    If the ultimate arbitrators of the professional lives of teachers were not simply the people who spend the most money to win what, for a large percentage of the electorate, is an obscure and ignored election. I realize thus article pertains to the Minneapolis system, but can you envision what this would mean for suburban and out state teachers with school boards under the command of religious cranks and those out to literally destroy public education in its entirety? No, I doubt it, there’s no money to be made for your patrons there.

  7. Submitted by Matt Haas on 10/17/2013 - 09:43 pm.

    I must say

    It takes a certain level of “gumption” to proclaim “fellow” liberals racists, whilst throwing support behind those who would literally exploit the victims of racism to make themselves wealthy. That genius level cognitive dissonance.

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 10/18/2013 - 09:25 am.

      Not dissonance

      Opportunism. Rank, cynical opportunism.

    • Submitted by Lynnell Mickelsen on 10/18/2013 - 10:06 am.

      Who specifically in the Twin Cities

      … “throwing support behind those who would literally exploit the victims of racism to make themselves wealthy.”

      We talking about asking the union to modestly revise its work rules in public schools to make them work better for kids.

      Matt, can you specifically say who is getting “wealthy” doing this? I mean, in real life facts on the ground as opposed to a grand theoretical conspiracy theory?

      Because unless you can, I see this as yet another way to avoid talking about the specific policies being proposed (which are hardly radical) and trying to change the subject back to conspiracy theories and Apocalypse Now.

      RE: racism. As I get older, I spend far less time trying to figure out who is racist or not. Racism is part of our culture—it’s like second-hand cigarette smoke. If we inhale and exhale, we take it in. I have no idea what people think or feel in their hearts, nor do I think it particularly matters compared to our behavior—especially our collective behavior.

      I’m a life-long progressive Democrat and I keep saying this because:

      a) it’s true;

      b) our politics are currently very tribal. I personally have a hard time listening to anyone talk about ed reform unless I know where they’re coming from politically.

      c) on this particular issue, it’s my beloved DFL political tribe that is defending and enabling a system with vastly different outcomes for different groups. There are plenty of causes—poverty, being a huge one. But it’s not the only one. And when my tribe supports stuff that is hurting kids and creating more racial inequities, it bothers me because we’re violating our own proclaimed values.

      • Submitted by Matt Haas on 10/18/2013 - 06:29 pm.


        The charters are being run by volunteers, with no salary demands, and being funded by charity, with no expectation of return on investment. The children are leaving their state funding in their home district too I suppose.

        • Submitted by Lynnell Mickelsen on 10/19/2013 - 07:42 pm.

          Matt, are you serious? How many public charter

          schools have you visited or studied? Because public charter schools are like public district schools—-they are staffed by paid employees and primarily funded by per-pupil state dollars.

          District and charter schools are both public schools. Both models also have volunteers and funds donated by parents, communities and local businesses. But their primary funding is with public tax dollars and their primary expense is paying teachers and staff—as it should be.

          • Anonymous Submitted by Anonymous on 10/20/2013 - 09:53 am.

            Charters are NOT public schools – only in the money they receive. Their boards are not democratically elected, they don’t have to take every child that comes to their door. Look at a real public school: When 50 kids show up on the first day of school they have to take them. Not so for a charter.

          • Submitted by sonja johnson on 10/28/2013 - 09:12 pm.

            do most public schools use their $ to fight unions?

            I worked in a charter school that paid to defeat a union. That’s right. Public monies were spent to defeat the union. Lawyers were called in and after an election, the pro-union decision was contested. After a year, the courts determined that the union won. How do you feel about charter schools spending money in this manner?

  8. Submitted by Eric Paul Jacobsen on 10/18/2013 - 10:49 pm.

    What are best practices?

    I agree with Lynnell Mickelsen morally. But I disagree on the science of the matter. The problem is knowing what best pedagogical practices are, and how best to promote them.

    If we judge teachers according to their students’ performance, we create perverse incentives. We motivate teachers to teach students who are easier to teach, not those who are harder to teach.

    I will agree that when seniority confers power on a teacher, and a teacher uses that power to choose to teach easier students in advanced classes, this creates an illusion of expertise, and I will agree that when lack of seniority means a new teacher must teach the students that senior teachers refuse to teach, we often put less experienced teachers in charge of the needier students, which is wrong. And if unions enforce this particular injustice, then I agree that unions are in the wrong. So we need to talk seriously about the power of senior teachers to choose their own students, and whether this power is abused to the detriment of the neediest students, who ought to have the best teachers.

    But this changes nothing about the perverse incentives I mentioned above. It also changes nothing about what happens to teachers who are judged according to their students’ performance when budgets are cut. Teachers who have chosen easier students to make themselves look better are often retained, while teachers who have chosen – or who have been left with – more challenging, often needier students are judged as failures and replaced. This creates, on top of all the other problems needy students face, the problem of increased teacher turnover.

    Finally, there is the problem of distinguishing good teachers from bad ones. I believe this is pretty easy to see after the fact, when a good teacher has been replaced by a bad one – but doesn’t this information come a little too late, once the good teacher is gone and the bad teacher has taken his or her place? And suppose we replace a seemingly bad teacher – bad because the teacher’s students perform poorly – with a completely new teacher rather than an older, experienced one. How do we know the new teacher will be better?

    This is what I mean when I ask: What are best practices? How do we really know who really is the best teacher? By the students’ performance? No, because some students are harder to teach than others. No, because this overvalues teachers who choose to teach easier, more advanced students (and have the power to make this choice) and undervalues teachers who choose to teach (or who have no choice but to teach) needier and more challenging students. No, because this gives us no clue whether or not a newly hired teacher with less experience will do a better job teaching the same challenging students.

    The only thing that can help us is to know what makes a better teacher a better teacher. What techniques distinguish the pedagogical practice of a good teacher from that of a poor teacher? These techniques, if they are observable, describable, and teachable, should be made the basis for judging teacher performance. These techniques, also, can overcome the problem of how to “scale up” the successes of teachers and schools that “beat the odds.” After all, the point is not to empower some schools to “beat” others by attracting the best teachers and leaving other schools with mediocre ones. The point is to improve the odds for all schools, with no exceptions. And the way we do this is to discover what the best practices really are, to train all teachers in the implementation of these practices, and to judge them according to their success in doing so. Then, at last, we will be judging teachers rightly: according to their own performance, not according to their students’ performance.

    • Submitted by Lynnell Mickelsen on 10/19/2013 - 09:31 pm.

      Thanks for this comment, Eric Paul Jacobsen

      ….a big change from the No Child Left Behind era is to move from evaluating teachers’ primarily from their students’ performance to evaluating teachers based on their students’ growth. It’s often called value-added data.

      Because you’re right—the old NCLB rules often simply punished teachers who taught poor kids.

      Let’s say you’re a fourth grade teacher and you get a kid who comes in reading at a first grade level. At the end of the year, you’ve brought that kid up to reading at a third grade level. Which means you’ve accomplished two years of growth in one year—absolutely phenomenal success. Under NCLB, you were still a failure because you didn’t bring the kid up to 5th grade level.

      With value-added data, you’d be recognized as the superstar teacher you are.

      Not all things can be judged with value-added data—art, music, gym and more. But it’s pretty good for K-8 reading and math.

      Value-added data is better when you have at least three years of data to average. To judge a teacher based on only one year–i.e. one class—doesn’t yield great data. Value-added data is also supposedly to be particularly good in identifying the top 15 percent and bottom 15 percent. It’s less accurate discerning between people who are in the middle.

      I totally agree with you on training teachers in best practice and judge them according to their success in implementing them. Curriculum plays a big role in this too.

      This is all complicated stuff, but not impossible.

  9. Submitted by John Appelen on 10/19/2013 - 04:45 pm.

    That was Excellent!!!

    Sorry I can’t support you on MPP anymore. I pray that these folks open their minds and learn from what you wrote. A bunch of really great kid’s futures depend on it.

  10. Submitted by Tessa Schweitzer on 10/21/2013 - 09:45 am.

    I am going to assume….

    That all other factors affecting student achievement have been addressed–that the school board is doing its job and hiring the best superintendents, that the principals are documenting teacher performance/issues so that poor teachers are dismissed, that the money is there for after-school programs and mentoring, that Ms. Mickelsen and those like-minded have run for school board to influence decision-making on the local level. Not a teacher myself but daughter and granddaughter of them and was wise enough not to go into education. My child attends our local school in a small town where there is a sizable Hispanic population, some Asian students, and mixed race–our school is naturally integrated, so to speak. The issues Mpls is having are not our issues, yet you want statewide changes to the union? What I see underpinning anti-teacher sentiment is that teachers teach because they don’t need the money or do it out of the goodness of their heart (traditional female profession). The former was true in my mother’s case as she taught in a Catholic school and made less than the janitor. Her unmarried colleagues had second and summer jobs to survive. My father left teaching shortly after I was born to be a computer programmer because he could not raise a family on the pay. One major reason health costs have gone up is that there is no “cheap” nursing labor pool. This traditionally female profession now is in such demand that society now has to pay them. Sorry, but as a liberal Dem, I am not seeing an argument here that would change my mind or make it worth it for the party to forsake the teacher’s union for the dubious/unproven gains of one, albeit large, school district.

  11. Submitted by Steve Eberly on 10/23/2013 - 10:20 pm.

    We’re just getting started in MPS

    I appreciate Lynnell’s passion and dedication to this issue and feel the positions taken are reasonable & well founded…

  12. Submitted by Kurt Anderson on 10/27/2013 - 11:55 am.

    A few belated comments

    1) Conversions of this sort go both directions. Consider the “counterrevolutionary” Diane Ravitch:

    2) We sent our kids to an academically very strong parochial school and got our money’s worth, but I was very much struck by what a racially homogeneous, intact 2-parent family, self selected group we were. Incidentally, the school (which was described to me by one parent as “Benilde on steroids”) received a passing backhanded compliment recently in Minnpost:

    3) I was very impressed — and inflamed — watching “Waiting for Superman.” However, as I processed the information, I was struck by a subtle but major admission the movie makes — that the bell curve of achievement for charter schools is no greater than that for public schools.

    4) It is unfortunate to see the entrenched positions that have developed over this issue. Teachers need to realize that the world of work in general has taken on a flexibility exemplified by defined contribution benefit plans, an emphasis on competitiveness and value added over seniority, and less structured job descriptions. Their critics need to realize that teachers have already moved a good way down the road in making that realization and still have in many details a thankless job. Both sides have a long way to go. When we privatize success and socialize failure, we have to be patient and careful in addressing the failure.

    5) Here’s one you will really love: Based on my 26 kid-years of parochial school parenting, I strongly believe that private schools get a real benefit from publicly asking God to bless their efforts. I also strongly believe that public school teachers, parents, and students can get the same benefit by privately asking God for the same benefit. The helping hand is extended and it is waiting for you to take it.

  13. Submitted by sonja johnson on 10/28/2013 - 09:07 pm.

    “But the argument that we must first end poverty (a task that will not end in our life-times) before we can design schools to work better for students is bullsh-t. And progressives should stop making it.”


    “It’s not an either/or choice. We can do both. We must do both.”

    Who is we? Society or specifically school teachers? Your title leads me to believe you think that unions have the power to crush or champion the cause of schools. Unions are made of teachers and administrators. Last time I checked, administrators had more power than teachers. Perhaps you should raise many of your concerns with administrators who control the structure of the schools. Also, do you not think that when parents, of any color or socioeconomic class, get involved, schools get better? It’s called being a squeaky wheel, and it transcends all categories. Don’t make it just a race issue. There are poor kids of all backgrounds who don’t have a voice, namely because their parents don’t know how to get involved, or choose to not get involved. It’s the human condition and this is mirrored throughout pretty much all institutions.

    “In my own case, I regret it took me 10 or more years to realize that actually a big part of the problem is not that too many poor brown people don’t care enough about their own kids. It’s that too many white middle-class people like me don’t care enough about those same kids.”

    No doubt there are plenty of middle class white folks who don’t care about kids of color. And plenty of “poor brown people” who do care about their kids. At the end of the day, unfortunately, people are generally rather selfish in that they care only about their immediate needs, families and friends. This is part of the (crappy) human condition.

    By the way, the “successful” charter schools mentioned, at least some of them, are vocal about doing “everything” in the name of student success. That’s nice, but many demand teachers spend 11 hour days CONSISTENTLY to do their jobs. Sorry, but when working with children intensely, this is not self-sustaining. If you had them work normal, humane hours, the scores would likely not be as tremendous.

    The unions have room to grow. Absolutely. Bad teachers are sometimes protected. But overwhelmingly, they keep teachers healthy enough to be productive by safeguarding basic worker rights. You need to do more research into the rotating door of charters and ask some serious questions about how/why this is happening.

    If I had a child in a class, I would be just as concerned about how the teacher was treated as my child. Not just because I am humane, but because a teacher working insane hours under poor leadership is likely not going to be able to function as well as one who is treated like a human being.

  14. Submitted by Paul Bolstad on 11/06/2013 - 09:33 am.

    Seniority system must go

    It hurts our kids. Everyone who’s had children spend 12 years in the public education system knows this, has had their kids assigned a horrible teacher, long-deserving of dismissal but for seniority/tenure privileges. Our children experienced some truly stellar teachers, and on the whole the teachers, were competent, earnest, and engaged. But our experience also includes a history teacher that would rather surf the web on his phone during class than teach, a music teacher that played videos for something like half the classes, and an English teacher with regular misspellings on assignments, and little interest in improvement.

    My kids are long-since graduated, I still vote for every school levy, believe in smaller class sizes, and think most teachers are heroes. But teachers hurts themselves in supporting a system that regularly discards some of the best to keep some of the worst.

    I’m fine with the teachers developing a system that measures effectiveness, but you have to come up with something better than the seniority-weighted system your defending. It is painfully obvious, even to your natural supporters, that the current system fails us, and you.

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