Editorial: Scrap seniority-only teacher tenure law

  • Updated: February 12, 2012 - 5:22 PM

'Last in, first out' protections are hurting Minnesota's students.

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Licensed resource teacher Olivia Stewart read a story, "Ron's Big Mission," to second grade students at Earle Brown Elementary School in Brooklyn Center last September. Earle Brown failed to meet the No Child Left Behind goal in 2011 and was preparing for restructuring.

Photo: Jim Gehrz, Star Tribune

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An excellent "Teacher of the Year'' finds herself out of a job just months after receiving the honor -- the victim of a layoff based solely on seniority. In another district, a highly respected teacher with more experience in a subject area gets bumped out of a position in favor of a more tenured instructor.

Those unfortunate cases are real examples from Minnesota schools. Under current state law, seniority is the lone deciding factor in laying off teachers.

And although there were good reasons for the law decades ago -- including discrimination based on race and gender -- rigid tenure laws that place seniority above performance in evaluating teachers are no longer in the best interest of school children.

That's why an important legislative proposal that would modify Minnesota's "last in, first out" teacher tenure law merits bipartisan support.

A bill introduced by Rep. Branden Petersen, R-Andover, would remove the state seniority-only provision and replace it with a system based on licensure and teacher performance along with seniority. The new law would give school districts much-needed flexibility in trying to assemble and retain the most effective teaching staffs.

Last year, the respected National Council on Teacher Quality gave Minnesota an "F" for its ineffectiveness in dismissing poor-performing teachers, in part because of the seniority-only law. And the state lost out on the first round of federal Race to the Top funds because of its failure to address ineffective teaching, among other factors.

Certainly experience matters in teaching. And negotiated contracts that base teacher pay on time served while also providing for performance-based incentives should be protected from the whims of legislators.

But Petersen's constructive education reform proposal is limited to the role tenure plays in layoffs. The proposal would not eliminate seniority, but it recognizes that number of years served is not a complete measure of competence, motivation and proven success reaching kids.

There's little debate that the future of K-12 education in Minnesota depends on getting the most effective instructors in front of children. Reams of research confirm that quality teachers and administrators are the most important in-school factors in helping kids learn.

Effective instruction is especially important for students who are the furthest behind -- the thousands of low-income students of color who are caught in the well-documented achievement gap.

Opponents of the tenure change argue that it would encourage districts to lay off older, more highly paid teachers to save money. And there is concern that without state seniority protection, layoff decisions would be left to administrators who might play favorites. That's possible in any workplace, of course, and federal and state employment laws provide recourse for those who believe they've been unfairly targeted.

Multiple-measure teacher evaluation systems can help prevent that kind of arbitrary decisionmaking in Minnesota schools. Also, under Petersen's bill, those teachers rated as ineffective would lose their jobs first, from least senior to most senior within that category.

A state law passed last year requires annual evaluation of tenured teachers under a system that will be in place by 2014. The seniority changes in Petersen's bill would come a year later.

That timeline is disappointing -- too many kids now in our schools would never reap the benefits -- but within that long gestation period the state should also develop an evaluation system for principals that ties ratings to teacher and student performance. In both the teaching and administrative ranks, educators who are found to be ineffective under a clear, consistent set of criteria should be moved out of our schools as quickly as possible.

Minnesota is one of about a dozen states that make seniority the only factor in layoffs. If the proposed legislation passes, the state would join about 18 others that have moved toward performance-based decisions over the past two years.

In Minnesota, supporters of tenure change include the African American Leadership Forum, Students First-Minnesota, Put Students First-Minneapolis, as well as business, civic and nonprofit organizations.

The fact that the powerful teachers union, Education Minnesota, opposes the bill should not deter legislators who believe effective reform is a better alternative to protecting the status quo. In fact, some Minnesota school districts already have negotiated contract agreements with teachers unions that acknowledge factors other than seniority.

But Petersen's bill would force the issue and put administrators in a better position at the bargaining table.

Reform-minded legislators and school leaders should be emboldened by the fact that nearly 80 percent of Minnesotans agree that teacher effectiveness should be considered when making layoff and firing decisions, according to a recent survey by the Minnesota Campaign for Achievement Now (MinnCAN).

In his recent State of the Union address, President Obama stressed the need for flexibility to "replace teachers who aren't helping kids learn.''

By replacing its outdated seniority-only layoff law, Minnesota has a chance to take a major step in that direction during this legislative session while strengthening the teaching profession and -- most important -- giving state kids the best chance to succeed in the classroom.

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Readers, what do you think? To offer an opinion considered for publication as a letter to the editor, please fill out this form. Follow us on Twitter @StribOpinion and Facebook at facebook.com/StribOpinion.

  • OPPOSING VIEWS

    Current law "says there will be times when districts get rid of high performers. ... That's completely incompatible with the teacher evaluation law we passed last year. ... I don't see how it is a proteacher position to ignore performance.''

    State Rep. BRANDEN PETERSEN, R-Andover, author of a bill that would modify Minnesota's teacher tenure law

    • • •

    The proposed bill "will lay off teachers according to criteria that have not even been developed yet. In its rush to get rid of 'ineffective' teachers, this bill actually undermines current efforts to create an evaluation system that makes good teachers better and removes those who cannot or will not improve.''

    From the website of EDUCATION MINNESOTA, the state's teachers union

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