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Education Minnesota’s election: A change of style, not policy

specht photo
Denise Specht

If there’s one thing to be said about Minnesota’s unionized teachers, it’s that they’re too focused to let a little unruliness knock them off-topic.

On Saturday, delegates representing Education Minnesota’s 70,000 members elected Denise Specht to be the union’s next president. Currently finishing her second term as secretary-treasurer, Specht will begin her three-year term July 1.

A former president of the Centennial Education Association, Specht’s long career includes stints as a Title I teacher at Golden Lake Elementary School in the Centennial district and teaching sixth grade in Forest Lake.

Specht’s campaign website and Facebook page include shout-outs from literally hundreds of teachers, educational support professionals and university and community-college faculty members, most of whom praise her for her willingness to listen and to forge collaborative relationships.

None of them seems anxious to talk for the record about their decision to replace two-term President Tom Dooher, however. Dooher’s campaign site was down as of Monday night.

Specht herself is turning down all interview requests for the moment. And calls to a number of her supporters throughout the state did not yield so much as a gushy endorsement.

Keeping focus on Capitol

“I fully support and trust Denise’s leadership and am excited to help her move Education Minnesota forward come July 1, but right now I am committed to continuing collaboration with President Dooher on our mission to improve public education,” was one representative response, received from a member of Education Minnesota’s governing board.

“We are focused on working to build quality evaluation systems that will support educators and improve our profession while continuing to have conversations with our elected officials on the importance of fully supporting and funding our schools. Please let me know if you have any further questions ….”

So where did all this milquetoast come from? Here’s what Your Humble Blogger was able to strong-arm out of courtesy calls returned by a few reliable suspects:

For starters, it’s go time at the Capitol and it would not be good for Education Minnesota’s agenda if the election of a new president were seen as a change of direction. Which it is in fact not — in terms of public policy, anyhow.

dooher portrait
Tom Dooher

Nor is it a repudiation of Dooher’s leadership so much as simmering irritation with Dooher. The grandson of a Teamster leader murdered in 1937 — likely by mobsters — Dooher is a third-generation labor organizer who taught middle-school phys ed and coached in Robbinsdale before assuming a union leadership role in 1997. 

Little known here in Minnesota is the aura of success that Dooher has acquired on the national scene. Last summer, the National Education Association (NEA) awarded Gov. Mark Dayton its America’s Greatest Education Governor award. Ostensibly in recognition of his investments in public education, the award was read as a vote of thanks for Dayton’s repeated refusal to sign legislation that would have required teacher performance data to play into layoff decisions.  

Dooher’s personal style rankled

Correspondingly, Dooher was seen as the man who delivered. And happy though his members — energized by the Chicago teachers’ strike in a way that is perhaps not appreciated enough by outsiders — might have been, many saw Dooher as a self-promoter.

And even some of Education Minnesota’s staunchest supporters in the Legislature were said to rankle at Dooher’s personal style.

What’s behind the warm and fuzzy endorsements of Specht’s style? Insiders would say little except that she is expected to seek out more widespread participation.

(Illustrative tangent: Only 17 percent of active teachers voted in last week’s election of new leaders of New York City’s United Federation of Teachers. Retirees cast more than half of ballots.)

Here it’s important to keep in mind that public school teachers have endured a miserable few years in the public arena. Many want the policy changes and restored funding Dooher’s administration sought and Specht’s is expected to continue to push for. 

The debate over classroom effectiveness

At the same time, a new poll by the education reform advocacy group MinnCAN suggests teachers are more interested in the debate over effectiveness in the classroom than is typically assumed.

Nearly two-thirds of teachers with one to 20 years’ experience believe effectiveness should be the primary consideration in layoff decisions, the organization found. And nearly 90 percent agree good teacher evaluations and professional development will help advance student learning.

Finally, contract negotiations soon to start in Minneapolis are expected to be brutal, possibly widening dissension within the district’s federation.

In short, the seat Specht assumes July 1 will be a hot one indeed. No doubt that right now, she’s hoping her supporters’ resolute focus on the future endures.

Comments (5)

  1. Submitted by Alec Timmerman on 05/01/2013 - 10:00 am.

    It is no surprise that teachers want effective evaluation

    “And nearly 90 percent agree good teacher evaluations and professional development will help advance student learning.”

    That’s the biggest Rheeformer myth, that teachers are opposed to evaluation. No one wants effective colleagues more than teachers themselves. Just because teachers oppose ineffective and faulty evaluations as proposed by the Rheeform movement, doesn’t mean we do not yearn for constructive and effective evaluation. Teachers crave it.

    The idea that an Edina teacher is more effective than a St. Paul teacher because their students get higher test scores is ludicrous with even a modicum of examination.

    Even within a department test scores can fluctuate. One teacher may be assigned advanced kids while another is assigned more remedial kids. Even NWEA-MAP warns against justifiable lawsuits if you use their test scores for hiring and firing decisions.

    So can we finally dispel the myth that teachers don’t want evaluation, as your survey shows? We just don’t want evaluation proven to be ineffective.

    • Submitted by Lynnell Mickelsen on 05/02/2013 - 10:04 am.

      So Alec, what evaluations do you think

      have proven effective.

      In Minneapolis, according to a study by The New Teacher Project (a study that both the union and the district cooperated with) only one percent of tenured teachers are flagged for teaching performance issues. Out of this one percent, only .38 resign, retire or are dismissed. The rest go back into the classroom. So under the union’s much-toted Peer Assessment Review program, 99.6 percent of our tenured teachers are effective. This is not credible for any workforce.

      Minneapolis is designing its own evaluation system that has a combination of classroom observation, student surveys and student growth data. Minneapolis has been measuring student growth data for almost ten years—we just haven’t been allowed to use it to make decisions about who to lay-off or retain.

      That data shows that our teachers in the top 15 percentile are getting about a year and a half”s worth of growth from their students—year after year after year. Meanwhile, the teachers in the bottom 15 percent are averaging about a half-year’s growth—-year after year.

      Often these teachers teach in the same building, serving the same demographic of kids.

      Which means if your kid spends two years with an ineffective teacher, they may end up being TWO YEARS behind the kid who got the highly effective teacher across the hallway.

      Teaching matters. Growth data, when used correctly, is great at identifying the top 15 percent and the bottom 15 percent. (It’s less effective at the 70 percent in the middle.) I’d be happy to see growth data simply used to flag our top teachers for retention and our bottom 15 percent for

  2. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 05/01/2013 - 03:09 pm.

    For an old, retired, out-of-stater

    …this will be interesting to watch from the sidelines, and having been saddled from time to time with partners who were decidedly “not,” I want to heartily endorse Alec’s line above: “No one wants effective colleagues more than teachers themselves.”

  3. Submitted by Ross Reishus on 05/01/2013 - 08:37 pm.

    Mr. Doohor will be missed.

    He helped energize an abused constituency and inspired many teachers to keep up the fight. He also raised the bar on public awareness with the t.v. spots, and it helped in November. Let’s hope that our new president can continue that in addition to the new ideas she has. However, including MinnCAN and Michelle Rhee in any serious discussion on education reform is like putting the wolves in charge of the hen house. And it won’t matter what the quality of the relationships with them are, they will not settle for anything less than the complete dismantling of unions.

    BTW Alec Timmerman speaks the truth in his post.

  4. Submitted by Joe Musich on 05/01/2013 - 09:40 pm.

    have you helped or hurt ?

    Here’s your words ”

    Here it’s important to keep in mind that public school teachers have endured a miserable few years in the public arena.

    Has your reportage helped or hurt that with the the fate of teachers in the miserable few years ?

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