Editorial: Reject status quo in Minneapolis schools

  • Article by: EDITORIAL , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 21, 2011 - 8:52 PM

A unique coalition targets tenure and other obstacles to progress.

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Some Minneapolis parents and school administrators have worked hard to build and support strong teaching staffs at city schools, only to see the teams broken up when senior teachers bump younger educators, or ineffective teachers are moved into their schools because of tenure rules.

Still others complain that when more-organized parents work with administrators to identify a bad teacher, those educators get placed in schools with the most challenged students. That puts students in those schools even further behind and deepens the already high learning disparities between white students and students of color.

A unique coalition of concerned Minneapolis parents, City Council members, former school board members and pastors attribute those problems to provisions in teacher contracts that look out for adults instead of focusing on what's best for kids. The group raises important questions that district and union leaders should heed during ongoing contract negotiations.

Coalition members expressed their frustrations earlier this month in their "Contract for Student Achievement'' position paper. In a letter to the Minneapolis school board, the group asked that decisions about hiring, placement and layoffs be based on teacher evaluations -- not seniority.

Hardworking educators deserve fair wages and benefits, but the group makes a strong argument that teachers should also be held more accountable for student learning through fair and thorough evaluations.

The group is urging that the district and the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers (MFT) agree to contract terms that would stop the practice of placing low-performing teachers in schools that wouldn't voluntarily hire them, and speed up the process of firing ineffective teachers.

After observing contract negotiations between teachers and district administrators, the group says too little time is being spent on student-centered issues such as longer school days for struggling students and improved performance-based evaluations for teachers.

They fear that few education reforms will take place with the current board -- especially since four of the newest board members signed a letter on MFT letterhead, admonishing the last board for its handling of contract negotiations. The four later apologized.

In response to the coalition, school board and union leaders say they are keeping student needs at the center of their talks.

Minneapolis schools general counsel and lead negotiator, Steve Liss, said student achievement is the primary focus of both sides, and administrators and teachers are working on some of the coalition's concerns in negotiations and through labor-management committees.

"Teacher quality is critical, and we want to get the best teachers in the right classrooms," Liss said. "We want strong evaluation systems -- not first as a tool to just fire teachers, but to help them improve. But at the end of the day if they can't improve, they need to move on.''

But Bill English, one of the people who signed the Contract for Student Achievement, estimates that 200 to 300 teachers who are known to be ineffective are assigned to classrooms anyway. Dismissing them, he said, would allow the district to use the money spent on their salaries and benefits for programs and teachers offering better results.

Research consistently shows that quality teaching has a major impact on student learning. It's also one of the most important factors in improving achievement -- and one that school districts can control.

As they continue to hammer out a new contract, district officials, the school board and MFT would be foolish to ignore the coalition's concerns.

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  • FOCUS ON KIDS


    About 90 organizations and individuals have signed the "Contract for Student Achievement." The signees include the African American Leadership Forum and the Minnesota Business Partnership, as well as former school board members Pam Costain, Sharon Henry-Blythe, Tom Madden, Dennis Shapiro, Catherine Shreves, Chris Stewart and T. Williams. For more information, go to startribune.com/a823.

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