If you listen to Tom Dooher, president of Education Minnesota ("Few want teacher seniority scrapped," Feb. 19) you will conclude that using teacher evaluations in times of layoff to determine which teachers should continue teaching is unnecessary, unfair, un-Minnesotan.

In fact, according to Dooher, teaching is such an art form that there is no way to evaluate it to make employment decisions. The best we can do is let teachers evaluate each other, and never use the results for sorting high-performers from low.

Frankly, that position lacks seriousness, given Minnesota's enormous education expenditures, rising global competition, and our nation-leading racial gap in student achievement. The world is changing, our demography is changing, and economic expectations are escalating. To maturely meet the challenges before us, we must change.

Minnesota spends 40 percent of its budget on elementary and secondary education. Teacher compensation represents our largest investments in the academic achievement of our littlest citizens. While I share Dooher's enthusiasm about Minnesota's high ACT scores, I hope he shares my concern for the low-income and children of color currently foundering in our schools. These kids are several grade levels behind, and change for them moves at a glacial pace.

Some might be tempted to explain away the achievement gap by pointing to poverty, parenting and personal responsibility. Once that discussion concludes, we will still face the fact that teachers matter. Great instruction makes a difference. According to a Harvard study by Ron Ferguson, dollars invested in better-qualified teachers improved achievement more than any other investment. Further, if we ask, "Where are we closing the achievement gap?" the answer will lead us to nondistrict schools that can retain their best teachers and release the others.

How shall we ensure that when districts must lay off teachers, they are empowered to keep teachers who can produce a desired effect? By using effectiveness rather than date-of-hire to determine which teachers stay before our children.

Teaching cannot be the soccer game where everyone gets a trophy. Some teachers are outstanding. Some need help to be outstanding. And some need a properly funded dislocated-worker program so they can thrive elsewhere.

We can't fault Dooher for resisting accountability. His job is to protect the entitlements of teachers. Seniority is almost a religious article of faith for his defense of the status quo.

But Minnesota's children have no union negotiating their interests. Children don't vote. Legislators are not afraid of them. In the absence of such power, there is only the informed citizen using a properly ordered hierarchy of empathy to place the needs of kids above all others. Of course we sympathize with teachers, but in this civilization children come first.

The proposed legislation that uses teacher effectiveness rather than seniority for laying off teachers is one step in the right direction. It complements legislation passed last year that requires Minnesota to establish a teacher evaluation system, and for student performance to be 35 percent of that evaluation.

Teacher unionists will push back and say evaluations can't be trusted for anything other than "helping teachers improve." They will say poorly performing teachers should be exited before layoffs. They will say that if low-functioning teachers exist, it is because of the oft-heralded "bad administrator." They will predict the release of older, higher-paid teachers.

Life is not always rational, but it seems more likely that administrators, like coaches of any team, will release their weakest players and retain those most capable of reaching goals. But even if school leaders are irrational, the proposed law uses results from teacher evaluations to objectively rank teachers.

In the real world, evaluations are imperfect, but useful for sorting the American workforce. Most of us have lived with that reality all of our working lives.

More than once Minnesota's Teacher of the Year has been let go because current law cares little about the content of their character, only the date when they were hired.

School districts currently can tell you that some teachers are beating the odds with so-called hard-to-educate students. School leaders can point you to classrooms where, year after year, a teacher is closing the achievement gap. What they can't tell you is how long they will be able to keep those teachers they need the most.

We can no longer afford to put the occupational entitlement of adults above the needs of our children. We should all encourage Gov. Mark Dayton to improve teacher quality by ending "last in, first out."


Chris Stewart is a former member of the Minneapolis Board of Education, and he currently leads Action For Equity, a grass-roots campaign for innovation in education and family policy.