Bernadeia Johnson, superintendent of the Minneapolis public schools, has a chance to be an agent for real change in K-12 education. Whether she succeeds may depend on the outcome of negotiations underway this summer.

Representatives of the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers and school officials have held a number of public negotiation sessions, working toward a new teacher contract. Stark differences have emerged at those sessions over the most effective ways to improve student performance, which lags especially for lower-income students and students of color.

As recently as the Aug. 12 negotiating session, MFT president Lynn Nordgren and her team strongly suggested that improved student performance would be hard to achieve without reducing class sizes, especially for the youngest students. The administration team signaled willingness to work toward class size but argued that the issue of teacher quality is paramount.

Union members frequently recoil at mention of this subject, often appearing offended that school district officials would suggest that there are currently teachers on staff who are not providing a high quality of instruction.

But in fact there are many teachers in the Minneapolis public schools who are not adequate to the task at hand, and there are few truly excellent teachers. To get teachers of higher quality into the classroom, district officials must be freer to make selections on the basis of excellence, with reference but not deference to union membership and seniority.

In contract negotiations two years ago, the MFT agreed to give the administration and building principals a bit more flexibility to consider classroom effectiveness in the hiring and transfer of teachers. But union membership and seniority still count heavily in the process, identified in that contract as “interview and select.”

When teaching positions open up because of resignations, “excessed” teachers whose positions have been cut, along with other teachers on staff, have preference for the available positions, according to seniority. Through several early stages under the “interview and select” process, culminating in what is formally known as a “matching session,” excessed and currently employed teachers are given preference as union and school district officials work together to find the best place for the teachers in this pool.

When truly new teaching positions become available because of increasing enrollment or new course offerings, committees formed mostly of building principals and union teachers consider a list of 10 applicants that includes five senior teachers but that may include five additional applicants. The latter do not have to have seniority, and nontraditional candidates may apply, such as those who have followed pathways through Teach for America and alternative certification.

Even at this building committee level, though, union members advocate strongly for candidates high on their seniority list and exert considerable pressure on building principals to put a union-preferred teacher in the classroom.

To get more excellent teachers into the classroom, we must have more flexibility to consider those who have opted for nontraditional pathways. The quality of education delivered to students must be given priority over the preferences of adults.

Johnson clearly understands that elevating the quality of teaching is the paramount change that must be made to ensure that all young people get the education that they deserve. In a speech delivered in May, on the cusp of the negotiations now in process, she argued forcefully for hiring teachers on the basis of quality rather than seniority. She asserted that offers for new teacher hires should emanate from building principals and others acting on behalf of the school district, rather than at the behest of the union.

Johnson knows also that she and her staff must become ever more energized in their implementation of the very promising teacher evaluation process already in place in Minneapolis. She knows that ineffective teachers must be moved out of the classroom and counseled to pursue other professions.

Johnson has thus signaled that the time is now to move aggressively to emphasize student needs over adult agendas. In the weeks ahead, several more public negotiation sessions will be held. Expect school district officials to be making the case for a more flexible teacher hiring process that at all stages recognizes teacher quality as paramount.

The superintendent deserves your support in her efforts to make teacher quality a priority and thereby become that rare public official: the truly transformative, great superintendent of a large public school system.


Gary Marvin Davison is the author of eight books; he was writer and researcher for “The State of African Americans in Minnesota” (Minneapolis Urban League, 2004 and 2008 editions). For eight years, he has served as teacher and administrator for the New Salem Educational Initiative.