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Minneapolis schools dispute: What should be the standards for hiring, firing teachers?

Instead of tenure and seniority, citizen activists want Minneapolis Public Schools decisions about staffing to be based on evaluations of teachers’ effectiveness in the classroom.

Minneapolis schools dispute: What should be standards for hiring, firing teachers?

For 10 months, nothing has sparked so much as a millimeter of progress in the stalled contract talks between Minneapolis Public Schools and its teachers union. Not an $800,000 fine levied by the state after a January deadline was missed. Not a series of meetings with a state mediator. And not the fact that the process of staffing schools for next fall is already underway.

So the pros can’t resolve the impasse. What about impassioned, organized citizen activists?

In recent weeks, the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers has come under pressure from Minneapolis African American leaders and a new parents’ group organized specifically to push for changes in the union’s contract. Both are calling for dramatic changes in the union’s contract outlining how MPS should hire and lay off teachers.

Instead of tenure and seniority, the activists want Minneapolis’s decisions about staffing to be based on evaluations of teachers’ effectiveness in the classroom. Teacher quality is crucial to closing the achievement gap and staunching the flow of families out of the district, they argue.

“In the 16 years I’ve had kids in Minneapolis Public Schools I’ve watched over and over again as really good teachers are flushed out of the system and mediocre ones are retained,” explained Lynnell Mickelsen, president and co-founder of Put Kids First Minneapolis. “We have got to start talking about this stuff openly.”

Mickelson came to the issue as a parent. Her three sons all attended MPS schools. As a volunteer on site-based hiring teams, she said she saw some teachers hired “you would never, ever hire if you had a choice,” including a middle-school band teacher who could not play a band instrument or read a score, but whose seniority allowed her to “bump” a beloved, less experienced teacher during layoffs.

“We’re focusing on the contract because no one else wants to talk about it,” Mickelson said.

Lynn Nordgren
Lynn Nordgren

Labor leaders counter that MFT has long been regarded as one of the most reform-minded teachers’ unions in the country, often pushing district administrators to agree to tough changes and agreeing to controversial experiments such as allowing non-member Teach for America teachers in MPS schools.

“We’ve been collaborative as a union,” said union president Lynn Nordgren.

Minority teachers cut
In recent years plummeting enrollment and budget cuts have shrunk the district’s teacher corps to the point where most remaining teachers have 14 or more years’ seniority. Large numbers of minority teachers didn’t survive the cuts, critics complain, while too often mediocre and incompetent veterans did.

As a result, some 87 percent of the district’s teachers are white, while 70 percent of students are minorities, according to Mickelson and Bill English, co-chair of Black/African American Leadership Summit and the head of the other effort to pressure the union.

Numerous education reform efforts have sparked controversy in recent months both nationally and locally, but perhaps none has been as divisive as teacher tenure. Unions have long maintained that tying teachers’ job security to student achievement is unfair because poverty, homelessness and other problems make some students harder to teach than others.

An array of strange ideological bedfellows — including President Obama and Gov. Tim Pawlenty — counter that the “last hired, first fired” system is particularly unfair to disadvantaged children. Teachers with seniority to bid into lower-poverty schools usually do, creating year after year of layoff-induced “churn” in their poorer counterparts.

A study released last week by the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington confirmed that the traditional rules protect mediocre or inept teachers from layoffs even when districts are forced to let go of their most effective ones. Minority students feel the impact disproportionately, the study found.

“Teaching experience varying by school poverty concentration is reflected nationally,” the researchers reported. “The highest poverty schools, where over 75 percent of their students qualified for free and reduced-price meals, had the highest percentage of teachers with less than four years teaching experience. Students at those schools are more likely to have a less experienced teacher than their peers at lower-poverty schools.”

In part because Minneapolis’ poorest schools suffered from high teacher turnover, two years ago MPS and its union agreed to a modification to the rules dubbed interview and select. Under the agreement, when a school has an opening, teachers bid for an interview. With the aid of a site-based team that includes teachers, the principal interviews the bidders with the most seniority as well as a few interested candidates who are lower down the list.

Interview and select was a baby step in the right direction, in Mickelsen’s opinion, but it hasn’t solved the problem. The pool from which principals must pick includes only tenured and “excessed” teachers, she noted. And even if a school does hire less experienced candidates under the new rule, administrators are powerless to keep them from being “bumped” by veterans losing their jobs elsewhere.

“Sometimes there’s no one you want to hire,” she said. “You can’t hire from outside. There might be a fantastic candidate you can’t hire and you know they’re fantastic because they were in your school three years ago.”

Teachers evaluated based on learning
Mickelson and the other activists who formed Put Kids First Minneapolis last winter think they have a solution. They want teachers evaluated according to data on students’ learning and they want that information to come into play when administrators are deciding how to staff schools.

Shifting to so-called value-added assessments is something states need to do if they want to qualify for federal Race to the Top stimulus dollars. And U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan has signaled that tenure reform will be a cornerstone to the Obama administration’s education policy.

Tying teacher compensation and job security to student test scores has long been controversial, and educators are justifiably nervous about the notion. Under former President George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind policy, there were consequences for schools where too few students passed standardized tests.

Because the tests administered every spring in Minnesota measure whether every child in a classroom is performing at grade level, schools with high numbers of disadvantaged kids are much more likely to be judged as failing. So there’s no incentive for teachers to work in these schools.

This could be fixed by moving to a test that measures each student’s learning over the course of the school year, Mickelsen and others argue. That way, teachers wouldn’t be penalized for having students who were, say, behind their grade in reading so long as each made a year’s progress.

Many Twin Cities school districts already administer such value-added assessments in addition to state-mandated tests.

Proponents say the tests deliver important data about teachers, particularly when it comes to the top and bottom performers. “We know a good teacher can make 18 months or two years of progress with a kid and a substandard teacher six months,” said Mickelsen.

Race to the Top winner Tennessee has used value-added data for 20 years. The system used there, which is serving as the model for new rules in other states, includes some provisions designed to protect teachers who had, say, a particularly tough class one year.

Teachers are rated according to three years worth of rolling data, for example, and statistical outliers are combed from the data. Students are not counted if they have not been in the district for at least 150 days or the classroom for 75.

So why won’t Minneapolis’ union consider changing seniority rules? The notion is extremely unpopular with its members, who argue they have no other protection from bad principals, for starters.

“Seventy-two percent of our teachers now say they work in a culture of fear and intimidation,” said Nordgren.

Due process
Nor does the union have any interest in protecting malingerers. Over the last decade, MFT’s peer review system has been used to move 500 poor performers out of the system and help another 700 perform well enough to keep their jobs, she said.

“Tenure doesn’t mean you can’t be fired,” said Nordgren. “It means you get due process. We’re not protecting bad teachers. We’re saying everyone should have the right to a fair hearing.”

More to the point, she said, several years ago the union agreed to adopt Pawlenty’s controversial pay-for-performance plan, Q-Comp. Yet teachers are still waiting for $4.6 million in merit pay they were promised for the 2007-2008 school year.

MPS has said it didn’t get the money from the state. A union grievance over the money is currently in the hands of an arbiter, who earlier this week agreed with the union’s assertion that its old contract with the district is still in place.

The arbitration can now address the remaining issues, including the unpaid merit pay. Until that is resolved, MFT can’t ask members to agree to more reforms, said Nordgren.

“Our teachers work an average of 10-12 hours a day,” she said. “They put in $3 million worth of unpaid overtime every two weeks. They contribute $1.8 million [a year] out of their own pockets for purchasing supplies for their classrooms.”

Both English and Mickelsen said they have had conversations with Nordgren in recent days, but don’t have any idea whether further discussions on tenure reform are in the offing. Nor do they have any idea what specific changes to seniority have been proposed by the district or what the union’s response has been.

“As you can imagine, the MFT is not thrilled about us,” Mickelsen said. “Most people — including at least a third of the teachers — know we need make these changes. What’s been missing is not a lack of information or good research, but a lack of political will.”

Beth Hawkins writes about education and other topics.