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.
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.