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A teacher’s support for the Minnesota tenure lawsuit

Not too long ago, I was teaching math at a public school just outside the Twin Cities. I loved my job, and I loved my students. Teaching advanced placement statistics, I worked tirelessly to foster strong relationships with students built on trust and high expectations. But when budget cuts rolled around in 2011, I was told I was being laid off. The principal expressed to me how disappointed he was – that he knew I was making a difference in our students’ lives. He fought as hard as he could to keep me, yet was met with one insurmountable roadblock: LIFO.

Nathan Strenge

I was in my second year of teaching. And because of “Last In, First Out” (LIFO) laws, I was first on the chopping block. These laws mandate date of hire as the sole criteria for layoffs, with no consideration for a teacher’s success in the classroom. Tenured teachers remain, irrespective of quality; teachers at the start of their careers or teachers just beginning in the school district – despite years teaching elsewhere – are the first to go. Since being let go, I have experienced much success in the classroom, winning a national teaching honor and being nominated for Minnesota Teacher of the Year. I have recently been accepted into the Gates Foundation’s Teacher Advisory Council.

Young teachers prone to layoffs

Current laws are punishing the rising stars of Minnesota teaching, discouraging future teachers from entering the profession, and most important, robbing Minnesota’s children of the education they deserve. With layoffs based solely on seniority, teachers in the first three years of their career – as I was – are extremely prone to layoffs, even if they’re making a difference in the lives of Minnesota kids. And there’s little to incentivize the next generation of teachers to enter the profession and strive for success with so much job insecurity during the start of their career.

I’m proud, as a teacher, to raise my voice in support of the plaintiff parents who filed Forslund v. Minnesota, the lawsuit challenging our state’s broken teacher employment laws, including LIFO. And I’m not alone. A 2013 MinnCAN poll of Minnesota public school teachers found that more than 80 percent of respondents agreed that effectiveness should play a role in receiving tenure, and more than 70 percent agreed that lack of effectiveness should be grounds for losing it. 

The plaintiffs of Forslund v. Minnesota are demanding a system that protects teachers proven to have the greatest success in the classroom – whether that’s a tenured math teacher with 20 years of experience or a nontenured science teacher with two. This would ensure that the best teachers remain in the classroom – providing the best possible outcomes for students. It would also attract significantly more and better teachers who feel empowered and motivated to succeed.

Whether or not I was good at my job did not determine my future in the Minnesota public school system. We tell our students of the opportunities available to them if they work hard and strive for success. And yet in the very building where we espouse the American dream, it seems to carry no weight. Good teachers grade students based on their effort and the quality of their work. Isn’t it time we judged teachers the same way?

A step in the right direction

Retracting LIFO laws would not be a silver bullet to fix all the problems currently plaguing public education. To suggest otherwise fails to see the deep-rooted flaws of our system. That said, retracting LIFO would be a step in the right direction. It would create an incentive system for talented young people to pursue the teaching profession. It would encourage current teachers to remain engaged, and stay active in professional development.  It would the message that teacher quality is a top priority for student learning, and that we will not forsake a student’s opportunity to have a quality teacher. 

Nathan Strenge now teaches math at the International School of Minnesota. He has won Solution Tree’s national Redefining Excellence in the Classroom Award and has been nominated for Minnesota’s Teacher of the Year.

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Comments (23)

  1. Submitted by Frank Phelan on 06/03/2016 - 09:19 am.

    Here In The Real World

    The thought that employers and supervisors always or even normally choose to lay off the under performers and keep the most talented is so naive as to be laughable. Boot lickers, back scratchers and sycophants have always done well in the supposed meritocracy that is America. Given a tight budget, an inexperienced lower paid teacher will always look better than an experienced higher paid teacher to administrators. Ditto for those who would ask hard questions of school or district leadership.

    Principals can and do make life difficult for teachers they don’t like, and usually are able to “get rid of them”.

    For the record, I am not a teacher, and do not live with one, and was not raised by one. I have no dog in this fight, don’t even have kids in public schools.

  2. Submitted by Pat Terry on 06/03/2016 - 10:57 am.

    Frivolous lawsuit

    I realize that the law is not Mr. Strenge’s area of expertise, but I’m not sure I would want my kids being taught by a guy writing in support of a frivolous lawsuit. The California case, upon which Forslund is modeled, was rightfully thrown out and this one will be too.

  3. Submitted by Sean Olsen on 06/03/2016 - 02:54 pm.

    True local control

    To me, this is the sort of issue that should be collectively bargained at the local level versus dictated in any way by state law. Individual districts should be able to work towards the solutions they think are best for their communities.

  4. Submitted by scott gibson on 06/03/2016 - 03:35 pm.

    We know one thing …

    Mr. Strenge feels he was more entitled to keep his position as a second year teacher than the person that the district actually retained. We know nothing about the circumstances of the teacher who stayed. Now Mr. Strenge teaches at a private school in not-so-underpriviledged Eden Prairie. I guess he is thriving.

    Quality teaching takes many forms. Whatever awards a teacher is nominated for or wins are strong indications of their high quality, but the reverse is not true. There are many, many Minnesota teachers of the year. Only one person gets that recognition, but a great many do outstanding work. Tenure is not a way of hiding incompetent teachers. It is a way of offering just enough job security so they can be their best. It allows teaching to be a career, as it should be.

  5. Submitted by Jim Smola on 06/03/2016 - 06:12 pm.

    Misguided

    As a retired educator and union leader I truly believe the lawsuit he mentions is frivolous. I also am troubled by the author’s support of it and believe he is misguided.

    I wonder how the parents who brought the lawsuit evaluated the teachers who were laid off? How they deemed the teachers let go were more effective than those retained?

    I question the validity of the author’s statements that the law punishes new teachers, discourages new teachers from entering the profession, and harms students.He also refers to a survey conducted by MinnCan, an anti public education and anti union organization, as a source without revealing who was surveyed doesn’t support his arguments.

    The law provides order to the lay off process caused by budgetary issues, it doesn’t punish new teachers. To make the assumption that a probationary teacher being laid off is more effective than an experienced teacher is not supported by research. There isn’t any proof that LIFO law discourages new teachers. I would offer most education majors are not aware of the law or how it is enacted. The idea that this law harms students is just not true.

    The Minnesota law that grants continuing contract rights which is commonly known as tenure has been in effect for decades. The reason that the statute was enacted was to grant teachers due process when they are being laid off or dismissed. The school district must give the teacher a reason for the dismissal and the teacher may request a hearing regarding the dismissal. It also requires teachers to serve three continuous years of probation in the same district and brought back for a fourth year before being granted continuing contract rights (tenure).

    If the parents and author want to get at the problem that causes layoffs they should talk to their legislators about adequate funding for schools, it certainly isn’t the continuing contract law.

  6. Submitted by Nathan Strenge on 06/03/2016 - 10:22 pm.

    A Rebuttal

    While I appreciate the conversation that this piece has sparked, I would like to offer a rebuttal to several previous commenters, who have not grasped the essence of the issue. Our education system, for a variety of reasons and causes, is failing too many kids. We need to make changes, and looking at ways to recruit and retain the highest quality teachers for all students seems reasonable. At the very least, we should be able to have a civil discussion comparing the merits of the current policy versus potential changes.

    “Here in the Real World” There seems to be a negative view towards principals and school administrators. Having worked with many, I can confidently attest that the vast majority of administrators would prioritize keeping a quality-experienced teacher rather than saving money in the short term. School leaders know that teacher quality is the single most important in-school factor for student achievement, and they are not going to marginalize their students’ success for fiscal reasons. There are a lot of other fatty areas of school budgets – admin overhead, sports facilities, etc. – that could be trimmed before releasing a high quality teacher.

    “Frivolous lawsuit: History is littered with laws that seemed acceptable at the time, but in retrospect border on absurdity. Letting teachers go irrespective of quality seems like it may be a candidate for such a future perspective. And whether you think the lawsuit is frivolous or not, let’s discuss the actual policy behind it. If you believe these Last In, First Out laws are best practice, I would legitimately like to hear your arguments defending it. To me, the disincentives it creates puts up barriers to recruiting and retaining the best teachers for all our students, which is why I believe a better policy could replace it.

    “We know one thing…” I strongly disagree that I felt entitled to keep my position. I do feel the work I was doing was at a high enough level that, given a choice, my principal would have kept me. Entitlement is believing you deserve something for doing nothing – I worked exceptionally hard to set high expectations and foster good relationships; I went the extra mile; I took on additional responsibilities; I laid the foundation for student achievement – that is not entitlement, that is work ethic. Also, I do not appreciate the comments about teaching at a private school in Eden Prairie. I encourage you to talk to the Upward Bound students from St. Paul Central and Humboldt that I have worked with for several years to tell you where my heart is. I agree with you that tenure is not a way of hiding incompetent teachers, but that does not change the fact that we let go of teachers without regards to quality.

    “Misguided” There are valid concerns and difficulties regarding the complexity of formal teacher evaluations, but I don’t think that justifies ignoring teacher quality in all forms. I also agree that concerned people should talk to their legislators, but it cannot only be about more funding. America (and Minnesota) spends significantly more on education than many places that have much better results than us. I am aware the common response to this is the population we serve, but we are sole proprietors of neither poverty nor diversity. We need to look at qualitative changes in addition to robust funding. Furthermore, MinnCAN is a well-respected progressive organization fighting for public education, and you can look at their survey methods here: http://www.minncan.org/research/teachers-education-reform

    I understand that opinions cannot always be changed, but I welcome a civil discussion that looks at the merits of the policy, and keeps in mind the most important thing – what is truly best for students.

    • Submitted by Pat Terry on 06/04/2016 - 10:31 am.

      Humility

      I called the lawsuit frivolous because I know the law (I’m an attorney) and have followed both the dismissed California case and this even more frivolous (because of differences in state law) case, so to respond with platitudes about how laws change just reinforces my initital opinion.

      And seriously, calling Minncan a progressive organization (go look at the right-wing groups that are funding it) really strains credibility.

      I’m sorry you lost your first job. My career (like most peoples) has had its ups and downs. But unlike you, I didn’t respond to my personal setbacks with a condemnation of the entire profression. When I was a year or two into my career, I certainly did not think I had it all figured out. I think my biggest concern about you as a teacher isn’t your misguided beliefs or wilful ignorance, but rather your utter lack of humility.

      • Submitted by scott gibson on 06/06/2016 - 05:32 am.

        I concur

        It is the author’s lack of humility that troubles. I feel pretty confident the author is a good teacher. It’s just that he isn’t the only one. Being nominated for an award doesn’t change that. The other person may be equally effective for his/her students, in a less flashy way. And yes, the school system/district matters. The background of its students, their circumstances matter. Tenure is due process, nothing more.

      • Submitted by Nathan Strenge on 06/06/2016 - 11:54 am.

        Two Points of Clarification

        1) So people can formulate their own informed opinions, here is the list of MinnCAN funders (posted on their website) http://www.minncan.org/our-funders
        Their funders run the the ideological spectrum, with the common thread being they are seeking to improve the state of education. Furthermore, the mission, vision, and work of MinnCAN focus on solutions that aim to solve the real systematic education problems we have. Our achievement and opportunity gaps, teacher shortages, teacher burnout, student disengagement are real problems that require policy changes beyond additional funding. Just to be sure, I fully agree we need to fund education at the highest possible level, but the evidence overwhelmingly tells us we must change at qualitative changes to address these problems, as well.

        2) I do not condemn the teaching profession when I say that teacher quality should be a factor in determining layoffs. Quite the opposite, in fact. I hold teachers in the highest professional regard, understanding the incredible demands and high levels of decision making that goes on to best teach our children.

        • Submitted by Pat Terry on 06/07/2016 - 10:30 am.

          Words have meanings

          “Progressive” (your initial term, which I questioned) and “run the ideological spectrum” (your follow-up term) are two very different things. Stanley Hubbard is not a progressive. The Walton family (of Wal-Mart) fame are not progressive. These people (along with numerous other Minncan funders) support primarily right-wing causes.

  7. Submitted by Paul Hamilton on 06/03/2016 - 10:23 pm.

    Good teachers and grading

    Good teachers don’t grade on effort, grades reflect what students have learned. Perhaps you’re not a s good as you think?

    • Submitted by Nathan Strenge on 06/04/2016 - 09:19 am.

      Please read on

      First off, if you read the full sentence you refer to it says, “Good teachers grade students based on their effort and the quality of their work.” While quality of the work is the primary focus of formal grading, it would be foolish to think that effort does not weigh in to student achievement. Regardless of that, the point of that entire paragraph was showing the contradiction that we espouse effort and quality as a means of being a successful student, but we do not hold ourselves to the same standard.

  8. Submitted by Howard Miller on 06/04/2016 - 11:50 am.

    tenure policies are not the problem Mr. Strenge stumbled over

    The problem that tripped up Mr. Strenge was not tenure policy. It’s the idea that funding for student education should fluctuate dramatically when private incomes take a hit.

    We don’t cut hospital staffs during recession unless patients quit showing up. We don’t lay off mechanics at a repair shop during recession unless no body brings their car in for service. During recession, students keep showing up at school, so why does it make sense to whack public school budgets, when the client keeps coming?

  9. Submitted by Conrad Soderholm on 06/05/2016 - 10:12 pm.

    Who forced layoff?

    Put the blame for Mr. Strange’s layoff, and the layoffs of all the hundreds of teachers who have just been informed of a possible layoff, where the blame belongs: Anti public education members of the legislature. With adequate funding levels, these layoffs would never have happened and the whole lifo issue would be mute.

  10. Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 06/06/2016 - 09:14 am.

    Sorry, kid

    Life is unfair. If you’re looking for something unfair to tackle, LIFO isn’t terribly close to the goal. Perhaps you should be looking at how and why teachers get laid off in the first place rather than assuming that your 2 years experience as a teacher and superior attitude would have better served the students. Personally, I believe that tenure should be challenged in the face of low quality before layoffs happen, while letting LIFO remain an efficient means for layoffs. I suspect that, even if the “low quality” teachers had been fired, layoffs would still happen because there are those who believe that spending money on public education should be avoided for all costs. In other words, even if the terrible tenured teachers had already been cleaned out, you would still have been laid off. As I said, life is unfair. If you want to make it more fair, suggest solutions and propose them for legislation instead of fighting a foolish battle in the courts. Tell me, what exactly will fill the gap if you should win? How do you measure quality? Popularity votes? I sure hope not–kids aren’t the best judges of good teachers. Test scores? What about teaching in challenging climates–where kids often have to deal with hunger and/or violence? If those kids fail to thrive, is it the teachers’ faults that the kids are hungry and stressed? Certainly, identifying criteria for determining teacher quality would be a much more constructive approach than joining a lawsuit that would do…what?

    • Submitted by John Appelen on 06/08/2016 - 05:08 pm.

      How to Measure Performance

      In the private sector this is pretty easy.

      The manager works with the employee to create a performance plan based on the organization’s goals and the key job characteristics. Maybe they meet a few times during the year to discuss how things are going, and tweak the goals if something significant has changed.

      Then at the end of the year the manager collects performance information from many different sources. (quantifiable metrics, customer feedback, peer feedback, etc) The employee documents their version, the manager documents their version, the manager applies grades to sections, they meet and discuss the review document, and the employee is allowed to add comments. The document is passed on to HR and/or higher level managers for approval.

      Then the highest performing people get promotions and/or bigger raises, the normal performers get various wage adjustments depending where they are compared to the target wage for the position and the poor performers get an improvement plan… If the poor performers do not fulfill their improvement plan requirements, their employment is terminated.

      If the community is going to hire a Superintendent to ensure their children learn, I’ll never understand the desire of some in the community to limit them from ensuring the best staff are in the correct positions and paid the correct amount. Most of our Private businesses would be bankrupt if they operated like that. In the Public schools it is usually the unlucky kids who typically pay the price.

      • Submitted by Pat Terry on 06/09/2016 - 10:59 am.

        Reality

        As someone who has worked in numerous jobs in the private sector over several decades, I find your description of how job evaluation and retention works absolutely hilarious. That may be how it works in theory, but the reality is very, very different.

        • Submitted by John Appelen on 06/09/2016 - 11:53 am.

          Agreed

          After 15 years with a company I ended up on the wrong side of a poor Manager and was ousted during a downturn… But as Rachel says… Life is not fair, get over it. I was highly compensated and was not adding enough value per that Managers opinion. He had to make a call and I lost…

          I agree with you that the above system isn’t perfect, but it is still the best system around if you want to provide the best performance and quality for the money. Imagine a Head Coach who is given a budget, a requirement to win and is then told he can not change personnel or wages unless the personnel are thoroughly negligent. Then he is told that the highest paid and/or starters must be the individuals who have been with the club longest….

          How do you think that team will do when compared to the teams who only keep excellent performers who follow the team’s plan? And the teams who can offer higher compensation for the most challenging positions?

          Now back to schools and helping children… Which is more important to our society? Ensuring older Teachers get more compensation, better positions and more job security…. Or ensuring the schools are performing excellently and the kids are learning…

    • Submitted by John Appelen on 06/08/2016 - 05:19 pm.

      Life is Unfair

      I thought this was a very amusing statement since the whole Union Led Public Education system seems to be set up around a desire for “Fairness” for the employees.

      The basic concepts being:

      – time served and degrees earned must significantly increase earning, job security and ability to pick one’s position.

      – employees should be free to say and do as they wish even if it differs from the organization’s / community’s vision, plan, rules, etc

      – the Teacher should be free to teach and organize their class whether it is appreciated by the Parents/ Students or not.

  11. Submitted by Nathan Strenge on 06/06/2016 - 09:24 am.

    Final Word

    I appreciate those that have contributed to the conversation in a meaningful way. I understand we don’t all share the same viewpoints, but I respect we all want the best for our children and for the teaching profession. The education of our kids is too important to be a divisive us vs. them, me vs. you issue. We will reach our collective goal – the best possible education system for all children and teachers – by having respectful dialogue on how to get there. While we may disagree on methodology, I think we can agree that personal attacks and placing blame detract from the collective goal. A better norm, I believe, is assuming best intent. This one norm could open up dialogue to so many important conversations. We could discuss how to incentivize more young people to go into teaching. We could discuss how to balance teacher quality with teacher job security. We could discuss how to tackle the real problems that are hurting our most vulnerable kids, all while assuming we are working towards a common goal. Even if you disagree with me on everything else I said, please consider this norm going forward.

    • Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 06/06/2016 - 12:53 pm.

      Personal attacks and laying blame

      I think several people asked some very pointed and legitimate questions and made some very important points. None of them, I don’t think, could really be considered personal attacks. It is important that you understand that, while you might take such questions and points personally, they are not personal attacks. Don’t dismiss them as such with the belief that our common goal of “want[ing] the best for our children and for the teaching profession” can only be achieved by what you believe is the right approach. What it appears that you perceive to be personal attacks looks to be direct disagreement with either your premise or your approach, or both. It is fine to assume best intent, but the road to Hell is paved with good intentions, is it not?

      And, for what it’s worth, I don’t believe that the common goal is as common as you might expect. While there are those of us (and it seems, you, too) that believe that every child has a right to a high quality education, not everyone believes that. There are those that believe that only certain children deserve a high quality education and actively work to ensure unequal opportunity in the name of “conservatism.” Some of them can be readily identified working themselves and others into a frenzy over the alleged lack of quality of public teachers while sending their children to private schools.

      • Submitted by John Appelen on 06/08/2016 - 01:52 pm.

        More Accurately

        I think I would change that a bit.

        “There are those who believe that only certain children deserve a high quality education and actively work to ensure unequal opportunity in the name of “Seniority,Tenure and Job Security for Public School Employees.”

        As we have discussed here many times… The current system promotes:

        – older Teachers with more degrees being paid far more than younger Teachers with the same level of responsibility and work load. With no regard to the actual performance, capability and/or work ethic of the Teachers in question.

        – older Teachers being assured much higher job security with no regard to the actual performance, capability, compensation level and/or work ethic of the Teachers in question.

        – the highest paid Teachers being allowed to get themselves placed in the schools with the easiest students in the district, leaving the schools with the children who need the most help with who ever they can get.

        – Charter schools being funded at a much lower rate than status quo public schools.

        – etc

  12. Submitted by John Appelen on 06/07/2016 - 10:16 pm.

    Thank You

    Nathan,
    Thank you for writing your views here. And thank you for wanting to put the needs of the children ahead of the wants of the adult employees. The reality is that Tenure, LIFO, Seniority based job placement, Seniority based compensation levels, Restrictive Teacher licensing, Lower funding for charter schools, etc are bad for the kids who need the most help, and good for the older teachers who stay in a traditional public school district.

    Unfortunately many here support the status quo public school systems and their continuing record of leaving a large portion of the poor unlucky students behind. It often amazes me.

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