Skip to Content

Support MinnPost

MinnPost's education reporting is made possible by a grant from the Bush Foundation.

In Minnesota schools, is teacher tenure really the problem?

specht photo
Denise Specht

Last week, a District Court judge in California ruled that several of that state’s laws regarding teacher seniority and tenure were unconstitutional. No one anywhere on the political spectrum reacted neutrally.

Subsequent headlines have fostered misconceptions: That tenure has been done away with; that the outcome of the case, Vergara v. California, will have sweeping implications throughout the country.

The one thing that seems safe to say is that the suit can be seen as a bellwether in the ongoing political controversies surrounding policies such as teacher layoffs that do not take effectiveness into account and practices that leave impoverished schools disproportionately staffed by ineffective teachers.

If legislative efforts to change some of those laws haven’t succeeded, activists may have found an easier venue in the courts. Whether this opens the door to sweeping change is anyone’s guess.

Monday, this space carried an interview with Mike Ciresi, one of the Minnesota attorneys most familiar with education lawsuits. Among his opinions: That the suits would not be necessary if teacher unions were not “intractable” regarding certain provisions concerning seniority, and if they did not exercise so much political influence.

In fact, Ciresi called out Education Minnesota, the state’s largest teacher union, by name. MinnPost asked Education Minnesota President Denise Specht to provide a counterpoint. The transcript of that conversation follows.

MinnPost: So what do you make of the Vergara decision?

Denise Specht: The California ruling definitely does not have a legal impact on Minnesota. Certainly it’s going to have some political impact, that’s for sure.

I guess this is where I stand: Circumventing the legislative process to strip away due process rights, that’s definitely something that I’m concerned about. I think we should all be concerned about that.

MP: You've touched on something the headlines have not made very clear. Can you talk a little bit more about the lack of legal impact here?

DS: In Minnesota, it’s our belief and it’s what we stand for, that teachers deserve due process. I look at due process as our First Amendment, because it allows teachers to have fearless conversations with parents, with administration, with policymakers, about what does and doesn’t work in the classroom. And it allows teachers to advocate for their students without fear of retribution or reprisal.

So my question in thinking about this case, is why would we strip away these protections from all teachers rather than talking about the administrators in this process? If administrators are failing to adequately evaluate teachers before granting tenure, or if they are failing to dismiss teachers when it is warranted, that really comes to the heart of this issue.

Why isn’t the focus on the job of the principals and what they should be doing as well?

MP: Minnesota’s statutes, with one exception, are different from those at issue in California?

DS: Here in Minnesota our statute already allows seniority layoffs or seniority decisions to be negotiated. We’ve got about 40 percent of our staff working in districts that already have done this. They are not using straight seniority when they talk about budget cuts or layoffs.

So it again goes back to that question, if we already have a system that allows for this conversation to happen, why isn’t it happening? It’s a question we have to wrestle with.

As you probably know, we have a number of school districts that don’t have contracts. And if this is a big issue for administrators, then why isn’t this coming up at the bargaining table? I really don’t hear this coming up.

MP: When you talk about those 40 percent of your members in districts that have agreements outside seniority, are you talking about the ability to lay off by licensure?

DS: It could be, it could be a wide range of things. Suffice to say, without having looked at all of the contracts, 40 percent of the school districts have a dismissal process that isn’t solely based on seniority.

If I could interject — one thing that we are really happy about and really focused on now is the teacher development and evaluation law. And as I said earlier, I think a fair dismissal procedure doesn’t necessarily protect ineffective teachers.

School administrators already have the authority to dismiss ineffective teachers. I don’t know why they are waiting for a budget crunch to do that, but they are.

And that enters into the scene that teacher development and evaluation law, which I think is really important. We’re excited about that law, we’ve wanted to have this conversation about getting better feedback and supporting educators in their work so they can get better.

That’s a missing piece in the conversation. And until we get that plan in place, I don’t know how school districts are going to be able to have that conversation about teacher placements without having something to fall back on.

MP: Minnesota has a three-year tenure timeline, unlike the 18-month timeline in Vergara.

DS: Yes, that’s another difference from Minnesota and California. In Minnesota, we have a three-year probationary period. So administrators essentially have three years to have conversations and identify areas of needs with teachers.

And they decide within that time whether they need to find another career and exit out of the profession or whether there’s an improvement plan.

MP: I’ve read headlines in recent days talking about Minnesota as a potential state where a suit like Vergara could come up very soon. Do you think that’s likely, and if so what do you think would happen?

DS: It very well could be likely. This conversation about tenure and due process seem to be perennial topics here in Minnesota. And I believe I have read that David Welch out of the Silicon Valley has promised to continue this campaign.

It already looks like organizations such as Students First are raising funds based on this possibility, so I think it’s absolutely a possibility. I don’t think though that that really keeps us with an eye on the prize.

I don’t think that conversation is really going to help us with the real issues that impact our students. It really is a distraction.

We should be talking about things like lowering class size. We should be talking about investing in Early Childhood and Family Education. We should be talking about unmet [needs of] our students and their families like health, fair housing, lack of education in our families.

But instead we are having conversations about this. And I think it would do us all better if we talked about some of those ideas instead of talking about education without really doing anything.

MP: So the Minnesota Miracle followed an educational adequacy lawsuit in which the plaintiffs sued the state for underfunding the system. Suits throughout the country since then have typically said that lack of funding or lack of resources violates students' constitutional right to an adequate education. This suit, because it looked squarely at the teacher contract, seems to have changed the way educational adequacy suits look going forward. Is this a game changer in how you, Education Minnesota, need to think about these things?

DS: In the sense of funding, no. We’re always talking about the things that are preventing people from getting into teaching. And [what] could be preventing people from working out [in] some of our hardest-to-staff schools.

So I guess my answer could be it really doesn’t have [to be] a factor because we have always talked about lower class sizes, talked about having the resources and the support systems in a school — that is what’s going to attract people to a school, especially a high-need school.

It takes vision, a leader with vision. So I don’t think it’s going to make us look at that issue any differently.

MP: What in your experience are factors that will attract teachers to very challenged, very high poverty schools?

DS: There has been a lot of research on that topic. And some of the things that I just said are definitely on the top end of that list. One is a leader in the school that has vision and is supportive.

Two is making sure that there are resources, time, support to do the work. Another one is support, professional autonomy. Those things rise to the top when you talk to educators.

We did a series of community meetings around the state. Our conversation topic was about teacher quality. One of the questions we talked about is how do you know if you got a good teacher and what would make a quality teacher.

But a few things really rose to the top that were somewhat surprising. And one was that many of the community members and parents that attended our conversations would not recommend teaching [as a career] to their own children.

When we asked them why, it came down to the professional respect. They are not seeing in the media or at the workplace that teachers are being respected as professionals in the work that they do.

Pay didn’t rise to the top in those conversations when it came to how to staff schools. But definitely pay, getting into the teaching profession, I line that up with respect.

There were many people, especially students of color, who said we’re not going to consider getting into teaching because of the high cost of going to college, the amount of debt I’m going to incur, the starting salary of the teaching profession is certainly not going to help me pay off the debt. So they’re looking for other professions.

MP: Is there anything you want to talk about that I haven’t asked you about?

DS: I want to make very clear, especially to Mr. Ciresi, that Education Minnesota does not believe that tenure is a job for life. Education Minnesota does not want ineffective teachers in the classroom.

What we do want is a system that lifts up and supports the profession. But we want a fair and effective process, too. One that would remove or dismiss teachers in a fair way.

That’s why we have put all of our organizational strengths behind the teacher development and evaluation law. We want that law done well, and I believe in the premise behind it.

And I believe we are the only organization who has done a considerable amount of heavy lifting. We’ve done trainings, which supported, we’ve advocated our plans.

I can’t name one organization that has that has pumped as much resources and training time into that law as we have. We want that to work.

Get MinnPost's top stories in your inbox

Related Tags:

About the Author:

Comments (11)

Intractable accurately

Intractable accurately describes these positions, but I'd like to point out an inconsistency to Ms. Specht.

Teacher union bosses often throw around the words "professional" and "respect", but then negotiate contracts that pay teachers like widget makers.

If compensation equals respect, and teaching is a profession, where does a standout go for respect? How does the teaching profession attract "specialists" with educations in highly desired fields like physics, math, science when they will be paid less to start than someone who earned a liberal arts degree and 5 years seniority?

Top brain surgeons get "respect" in bales, top cosmetic surgeons drive automobiles that put their "respect" on display. They've earned that respect with records of success that put their professional peers behind them.

What of the teacher that consistently sends students on demonstrably better than they were when they arrived? How does s\he collect the "respect" due?

The answer is simple.

Professionals do not allow blue collar trade labor unions, which the MFT and SPFT are by any measure, set limits on their compensation based upon the lowest common denominator.

Bales and bales

Most of the "respect" accorded other professionals – using Mr. Swift's examples – stems from the amount of their compensation. In this culture, sadly, compensation is often the primary criterion used to decide someone's value to the society – which is, itself, often a primary driver of compensation. It's a perfect circular argument.

He does, however, raise a valid point, which I've yet to see effectively addressed by powers-that-be. Having spent 30 years in the profession, and being at least somewhat observant of the culture around me, at least part of the recurring argument over teacher performance, tenure, and associated issues stems from an inability, or perhaps it's an unwillingness, of the general culture to make up its mind about whether teaching is, in fact, a profession.

If we're going to characterize something as a profession because of how it's paid, then teaching is apparently rather far removed from professional status, and not just in the K-12 arena, or even just in the U.S.

And, as I've said before in other posts, I was never paid enough to reach the median wage in the community where I lived and taught, nor was I paid as much as a trash truck driver, though the requirements of the two jobs and the community expectations of their practitioners are wildly different. It's simply more proof that teaching is not generally considered a profession, at least according to the criteria that Mr. Swift deems most important. Whether or not I was part of a union has, literally, nothing to do with it.

If, however, we're going to characterize something as a profession because of the training and skill involved in practicing it, then I'd argue that teaching qualifies at least as much as any other occupational segment dominated by people who call themselves – and who are called by other segments of the society – professionals. Unless Mr. Swift is willing to label every engineer whose work failed, every heart surgeon who lost a patient on the OR, every physician who has misdiagnosed a patient, as belonging to an occupation that is "not a profession," then most of his arguments evaporate as the sophistry they usually appear to be.

Counterargument about rates of failure would be telling if it weren't for the inconvenient fact that, unlike the engineer, especially, but also many other lines of work, the teacher has almost no control over the conditions of his/her work, nor does s/he have significant control over his/her subject/student during the majority of hours of the day when that child is not in his/her classroom. Moreover, unlike the engineer, the family practice doctor, and the surgeon, the teacher's efforts generally cannot be focused on a single project, as the engineer's efforts usually are, or a single person, as is the case with the family doctor or the surgeon. A class of 20 3rd-graders, or 25 11th-graders, allows only very limited time for individual attention, particularly when the standards to be met are not the teacher's, but are set by a high-stakes standardized test devised, usually, by people who are not involved in the classroom.

On the other hand, if teaching is not a profession, doesn't really require much in the way of training or skill, and can be picked up in a few weeks by just about anyone who walks in off the street, then all the standards and tests and preparation required by legislation are simply obstacles, and there are a lot of them. One can't help but gaze in awe at the number of hoops through which teachers are obliged to jump in order to secure even a poorly-paid position. If it's that easy, why is licensure necessary? If it's that easy, why require a college degree, or more particularly a college degree with a major in education, or even more particularly, a Master's degree? If it's that easy, any literate citizen ought to be able to do the job – maybe even Mr. Swift!

And he wouldn't even have to join one of those loathsome unions. Mr. Swift could become an adjunct faculty person at a local college, thus avoiding the messiness of the whole K-12 situation, and the publicity surrounding it. As adjunct faculty, more often than not, it won't make any difference – in terms of his compensation and "respect" – how demonstrably better his students have learned whatever subject he's teaching. Adjunct faculty are frequently treated as disposable, much like fast-food workers, but with a better knowledge of trigonometry, or the English literary canon.

In any case, tenure has little or nothing to do with educational outcomes. All tenure does is guarantee due process to the practitioners of an especially-exposed profession. I'd agree with the California judge that "über" due process isn't usually called for, but having been on the receiving end of a witch-hunt, I found due process to be quite valuable, indeed. And all of the hand-wringing and argument over tenure is window dressing. The problem, in this region as in many others across the country, is that minority children are not seeing much success in school. The primary driver of educational success is the family's socioeconomic position. Research going back more than half a century has consistently reached that same conclusion. One of the primary reasons why segregation, racial, cultural or economic, is pernicious is that it deprives the "have-nots" of in-person and up-close examples of how to be academically successful, and it simultaneously allows the "haves" to dehumanize and demonize virtually all those who are not superficially (by which I mean economically) like themselves.

I was not especially impressed by Ms. Specht's responses – she spent a lot of time dancing around issues that could have, and should have, been addressed more directly.

Once again Ray, we find

Once again Ray, we find ourselves talking past one another.

Pay is the criteria Denise chose "But definitely pay, getting into the teaching profession, I line that up with respect." As it happens, I am an Engineer, and one of the important aspects to being a good one is paying close attention to details.

It is clear that you're not very familiar with what an Engineer, or the family practice doctor, or the surgeon does. I never have less than 2 projects going at the same time for which I'm responsible for maintaining budgets, schedules, design, specification and testing. I'm responsible for directing the work of production techs and contractors. I don't know many Doctors who have the leisure of focusing on one patient...there just aren't that many Michael Jackson's out there.

Also, unlike teachers, I do not have the leisure of blaming the project itself. Either a thing works as specified, or it doesn't. I also can't come back to the customer and say I didn't have enough money to do the work properly. Likewise, for the doctor, either you are healed, or you're not...they don't get to choose what disease or injury they treat.

For a teacher, either a child can read and perform math within the average of the cohort, or they can't. If you are presented with hard to teach kids, then that's the job...either you're fit for it, or you're not.

As for your have vs. have not hypothesis, well, Jeff Bezos, Harold Simmons, David Geffen, Howard Shultz, David Green and others beg to differ. Many people manage to look past their humble circumstances towards a brighter future through education for their kids.

why of course

Let me guess Mr. Swift, every one of your projects succeeds? If not, why do you remain employed? Doctors, engineers, lawyers and other condescendingly self labeled "professionals", screw up all the time. They're human after all. Difference is they get to hide behind a wall of corporate secrecy, where their incompetence can be easily disguised, or mitigated. The attack on tenure really has nothing to do with it anyway as its nothing more than a thinly veiled attempt by two sorts of folks who have an agenda. The first group consists of conservatives, combatting what they see as a "liberal" agenda in education, under the guise of improving education outcomes for minority students. What I find hilarious is that folks like Mr. Swift would honestly have us believe that after years of vociferously decrying any attempt to improve the lot of minorities in this country, conservatives suddenly have discovered a conscience with regards to minority education. Their aim is the same as always, indoctrinate good "conservative" values into a captive audience so that they might improve their electoral lot in the future. The second group are the education profiteers, their aim is simpler still, figure out how to wring every last penny of profit from makings sure our schools turn out perfect drones for a private sector that has decided well rounded, critically thinking graduates make for difficult to subdue employee/subjects. The freedom of teachers to teach what is correct, not what will keep them employed by increasingly partisan and extreme school boards and administrators (particularly in rural areas where candidates can be elected to boards unopposed and virtually unvetted) must be unassailable.

What I find hilarious is that

What I find hilarious is that folks like Mr. Hass, after years of vociferously defending a destructively failed status quo in public education, would have us believe making minorities permanent wards of the state constitutes improving their lot in life.

Yes, Mr. Haas, every one of my projects succeed. While everyone does make mistakes, professionals do not have union stewards to assist us in making careers of them. And we certainly do not expect, nay demand, increases in salary after making mistakes.


Glad to see you interviewed someone with teacher training and (15+ years of) teaching experience to counter Mike Ciresi and his zero years of teacher training and experience. Why is it that simply being wealthy now qualifies someone as an education expert?

"Why is it that simply being wealthy...qualifies someone...?"

For the same reason that this same Mike Ciresi, upon winning a massive settlement, considered himself qualified for the post of U.S. Senator.

Same reason that John Edwards, again, a lawyer who gained wealth through winning a monstrous settlement, considered himself to have suddently become qualified to be President of the United States. Same reason Rudy Boschwitz became a U.S. Senator. Same reason Mike McFadden considers himself qualified to be a U.S. Senator. Then there was Meg Whitman and Carly Fiorini, who also regarded their wealth as qualifying them for high office.

If you've got big money to spend, you can promote yourself in a big way - for just about any public role. Take your pick, because there will be supporters, hangers-on to catch the gleam of your reflected glory - and some of that cash, too.

That's quite a record of success!

Almost...unbelievable. I'm sure Mr. Swift is running an international, multibillion-dollar conglomerate with that record of ABSOLUTELY GUARANTEED, unqualified success!

Back in reality, for comparison purposes, we might ask the very basic questions that Jamie Vollmer and many others have posed over the years when it comes to education. What if, in the process of designing a building, or a highway, or a park, the engineer had no control over the conditions and quality of his raw materials? What if the bricks were damaged in transit from another state, but the engineer was forced to use them anyway? What if, as the projects were being developed, the workers building it didn't eat all weekend, were abused at home, or slept under a bridge the night before construction? What if an incredibly high worker turnover was beyond this engineer's control? Would it be "fair," or even right, to judge the engineer consistently on the success of the project?

When it comes to this Vergara decision, I can't say it any better than teacher-blogger Peter Greene did recently:

"In the wake of Vergara, we've repeatedly heard an old piece of reformster wisdom: Poor students are nearly twice as likely as their wealthier peers to have ineffective, or low-performing, teachers. This new interpretation of 'ineffective' or 'low-performing' guarantees that there will always be an endless supply of ineffective teachers.

"The new definition of 'ineffective teacher' is 'teacher whose students score poorly on test.'

"Add to that the assumption that a student only scores low on a test because of the student had an ineffective teacher.

"You have now created a perfect circular definition. And the beauty of this is that in order to generate the statistics tossed around in the poster above, you don't even have to evaluate teachers!

"At Rich White Kid Academy, 50 out of 1,000 students scored Below Basic on The Big Test. At Poor Brown Kid High, 100 out of 1,000 scored Below Basic. Because the only admitted explanation for a Below Basic score is ineffective teaching, the only reason PBKH could have twice as many failing scores is because they have twice as many ineffective teachers! ! See how easy it is??

"...As long as you don't consider the possibility that low-income students do poorly on standardized tests because they go to schools with chaotic administrations, high staff turnover, crumbling facilities, lack of resources, dangerous neighborhoods, and backgrounds that do not fit them for culturally-biased standardized tests -- as long as you don't consider any of that, one thing remains certain--

Low-income students will always be taught by ineffective low-performing teachers.

If you define 'bad teacher' as 'whoever is standing in front of these low-testing students,' it doesn't matter who stands there. Whoever it is, he's ineffective."

Oh goody. Another subject derailed by Thomas Swift...

... And his amazing, dancing ego. Ever notice how the farther down the comments section you go, the fewer points get made on the subject of the article and it all becomes about baiting TS and TS getting his undies in a bunch?

Hey, MinnPost! Please develop a blocking mechanism to allow your readers to block the comments of the chronics and their enablers so that a varied discussion may take place.

I'm happy for you, Thomas

I'm happy for you, Thomas, as I'm sure are your clients, whose work you must do to your exact specifications during the time when you're not posting on MinnPost.

But one of my major points, which you willfully or not missed while changing the discussion from quality teaching to (I think?) funding -- was why you cannot compare public education to private business. That's a worn-out comparison conservatives and some reformsters love to try to make all the time. With your response, you supported my point.

It's wonderful that you have the luxury to adjust schedules and downgrade proposals (and thus expectations) based on your materials. If time is a factor in getting things done right, doesn't that take some wind out of your 45 percent figure (with which I assume you mean graduation rates in the inner cities)? Maybe some of that 45 percent need some extra time to graduate, since they likely started so far behind. What if one of your clients demanded (no excuses) that you get things done to your stated level of perfection, within an unrealistic timeframe and with subpar materials? How would you answer them?

As much as you'd like to, you can't have it both ways. You can't blame the system alone for what you deem failure, when at the same time you say you're sick of helping -- and given the choice, wouldn't help -- to provide the system with the proven raw materials (yes, that often means money, but also time and human capital) to get the job done to your stated level of satisfaction.

As Peter Greene says, you can continue to conclude that the people running up the side of the mountain are slower runners than the people running down the mountain. You can conclude that people who stand outside in the rain are worse at keeping their clothes dry than people inside. You can conclude that people who are standing in ten-foot holes have poorer sight distance than people who are standing on ladders. But until you acknowledge ALL the factors that put people where they are, your complaints ring a little hollow, at least to these ears.

I'm surprised we're spending so much time on Swift?

Rather let's go back to the substantive material in the article itself.

Ms. Specht raises an issue that is always seriously ignored in any of these anti-union tirades, and in any discussion about a profession that has organized labor... the executives. Every public school system in America has supervisors, superintendents, and school boards. By the way, none of these superintendents who are all getting paid much more than any of the teachers, are working without contracts... ever, for even one solitary second. So when you see these superintendents complaining about negotiations with teachers who still working even though they haven't ratified a contract... ask them when was the last time THEY worked without a contract?

A labor contract is just that, its a enforceable document that lays out conditions of labor that both parties much follow. EVERY labor contract contains a process for dismissal of any employee that does not meet required standards, or is guilty of misconduct. The procedures in most cases are relatively simple involving documentation and due process of some kind. The idea that employers cannot fire someone simply because they belong to a union, or because they have tenure is pure myth.

Ms. Specht is absolutely correct, why are we focusing tenure instead of supervision and administration?

My experience with union workers and employers basically boils down to this: employers simply want to be able to fire anyone at any time for reason or no reason. Labor contracts prevent that. Furthermore, my experience is that we tend to have incompetent executives who don't understand the procedures, or who can't figure out how to follow them. Instead of developing expertise in the necessary procedures employers simply want to eliminate procedures by obliterating the contracts one way or another.

Here's the thing: can you trust executives who can't even follow simple procedures will make good judgements about hiring and firing if left to their own devices? Why would you expect for instance that administrators who turn a sarcastic tweet into a two month long fiasco will make great decisions based on teacher performance rather than personal capriciousness or bad judgement? If you do away with due process or tenure you leave such decisions entirely up to executive who may or may not capable of such evaluations.

My experience with executives who work with organized labor forces is that they almost never take the time to learn or understand what they can and cannot do, or the what the process is to do what they want to do. Executives simply try to do whatever they want, or they claim it's out of their hands because the contract ties them up. And when they negotiate contracts they're focused on busting unions rather than fixing problems in the contract. Instead of negotiating better clarified procedures for firing tenured teachers, they focus on completely eliminating tenure altogether... and then we have strikes.

As for Cerisi, ask him when was the last time as lawyer he took on a client without having contract? Remember that $400 million dollar fee of his for winning that tobacco settlement? Show me the teacher who gets $400 million for four years of work?