“Teachers of color face new test” (front page, Oct. 5) laid bare the state of educator diversity in Minnesota: Almost all educators are white. At the same time, the population of students is growing more and more diverse, a trend that will continue.

Stefanie Johnson, in her book “Inclusify,” cites research that indicates more diversity leads to better decisions. This was written about earlier by James Surowiecki in his book, “The Wisdom of Crowds.” Educators of color improve outcomes for all of our children, especially our children of color. Models are important in nonverbally signaling to children that everyone can be successful.

“Last in, first out” (LIFO) layoff policies are a driving force in removing educators of color from the classroom. It is time to look at results in lieu of contract.

In 2017, the Minnesota Legislature removed LIFO as the state’s default layoff policy. It gave individual districts the power to change these policies. What the Legislature failed to do was to ensure that districts would protect the teachers students need most.

Nearly all Minnesota schools still base layoff decisions solely on when teachers were hired. (In contrast to what the majority of Minnesotans and teachers across the political spectrum support.) It is time to review and modify past practices and the consequences of those procedures as our school systems move forward. The focus should be on keeping the best — and a diverse — teaching staff.

If schools are faced with budget cuts and layoffs, Minnesota school leaders need the power to retain the very best educators for their students. This is not saying that this is an either/or situation. The goal should be to retain educators of color and keep the best teachers working with our kids. The French have a proverb: Children need models more than critics.

I’m a Black woman, educator and former superintendent of Minneapolis Public Schools. I will forever recall walking into a kindergarten classroom in northeast Minneapolis for a visit. The students were excited; one white boy stood up and pointed to my white colleague, thinking she was superintendent. She let him know that I was.

Immediately, a Black girl stood up, and looking at her teacher said: “You didn’t tell me she was Black!” In an instant, this moment was about more than representation — it was about our responsibility to our children. The girl stood there with her hands on her hips and reprimanded us as if to say: “How dare you keep that from me? You have no idea how important this is to me.”

Research shows that when students of color have teachers of color, they are more likely to be placed in gifted programs, graduate from high school on time and feel cared for, and are less likely to be suspended or expelled. White students benefit as well.

It’s crucial that we have the courage not only to recruit teachers of color but to retain them — and understand what the policy implications are. We are undermining our own efforts if we push teachers of color out soon after we recruit them.

While unions and districts have the power to make changes during contract negotiations, most haven’t made meaningful progress — most often none at all. Robbinsdale Area Schools took some first steps in their latest contract, trying at least to retain underrepresented teachers in limited cases. Will other districts step up and say, “We will do more,” displaying the courage to put their practices where their words are?

We can hope, but we can also act. Minnesota got rid of its statewide default LIFO policy, but we didn’t have the courage to say what we should do instead. It is time to change policies to align with needs. Districts and unions should have space to negotiate based on local needs but need better parameters to ensure we move away from narrow LIFO policies.

If Minnesota values teacher diversity — and giving our students the strongest classroom leaders possible — we should require districts to consider other criteria alongside seniority.

Minnesota must look at what the research is telling us and abandon policies that push out educators of color. It’s simply unfair and unjust for students. For far too long we’ve known and agreed about what’s at stake. Now is the time for courage. Our children deserve the best.

 

Bernadeia Johnson is an assistant professor at Minnesota State University, Mankato, and former superintendent of Minneapolis Public Schools.