School Board member pushes to weaken teacher seniority

Says student achievement will improve if principals can pick the teachers they want

Given the siege of the Minneapolis Public Schools, Board of Education Director Audrey Johnson wants to review one of the sacred cows of public education: teacher seniority.

"If we are going to hold principals accountable for what transpires in their buildings, they should have control about who gets hired," Johnson said. "Currently, principals have no say about their own staff. It's like managing a baseball team but not being able to chose your own players."

The Lowry Hill East DFLer said it may also be relevant in another major school district issue -- the achievement gap between black and white students.

Budget deficits for the 2004-2005 school year will require up to 220 teacher layoffs, district officials estimate. Many of those losing their jobs will be young teachers of color, which could lead to a predominantly white staff teaching students who are mostly of color.

Johnson said, "We don't decide teachers based on race, but one of the phenomena that we see is that teachers in certain communities relate in better ways to kids who are like them, and kids who are like them relate to those teachers in a better way. It's time to start looking at indicators beside seniority to see how everybody is doing."

Not surprisingly, the head of Minneapolis' teacher's union disagrees vehemently with Johnson.

"There is no research evidence in education circles that supports keeping young teachers over more-experienced teachers," said Louise Sundin, president of the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers. "However, there is research that shows that experienced teachers know more and do more and produce better results." Added Sundin, "If Audrey Johnson had a heart attack and went to the hospital, I am sure she wouldn't seek out an intern to do heart surgery."

Sundin said Johnson seeks a solution for a problem that doesn't exist. Minnesota courts have ruled that school districts can rehire teachers of color out of seniority order and that Minneapolis has done so in the past. Sundin said the reason the district has so few teachers of color is that few minority graduates are entering the teaching profession.

A better measure?

Sundin said that she doesn't know anybody in the labor movement who has ever come up with a better plan to deal with lay-offs other than the seniority system that the district has now.

Johnson thinks district officials should be able to take the teacher's ability into account. One measurement could be the Northwest Achievement Level Test (NALT), which measures individual student learning from year to year.

Dave Heistad, who directs testing for the Minneapolis district, said Minneapolis has used NALT since 1996. It's the district accountability tool for charting math and reading growth. NALT is given to all students from 2nd to 9th grade, excluding 8th grade because those kids take the Minnesota Basic Standards test instead.

Heistad said the test results provide extra information, such as a student's strengths and weaknesses in particular areas of mathematics. He called it "the best assessment for information in the nation" -- information that is not considered when assessing how effectively teachers teach.

Could it could be used to assess teachers' success?

"You can use it as one piece of information, but I wouldn't use it exclusively," Heistad said. "You should be using multi-measures like observations, peer tutors. I'd hate to see this test used for punishing teachers because you need to have a lot more information than just test scores."

Do veteran teachers get better results?

"There are some studies that show that veteran teachers are better at teaching math because they know the material better," Heistad said. "But longevity is not the big factor; it is the quality of instruction. Some of our best teachers are also some of our most senior teachers."

At the Legislature

Minneapolis DFL State Sen. Jane Ranum, a former teacher and a strong union supporter, sympathizes with Johnson. "I think everything in Minneapolis has to be on the table as a part of the problem solving. Just because somebody has seniority, it doesn't mean that they should be able to bump somebody else who is part of a community of learners."

Ranum, who represents Armatage, Kenny and parts of Lynnhurst and Windom, called herself a local-control person and would like the Minneapolis district to figure out how to close the achievement gap, not Gov. Tim Pawlenty's administration. However, the Minneapolis teacher's union would fight to keep things as they are, she said

"I think politically it is very difficult to take some of these issues on," Ranum said. "There are protections that teachers need, but if we are not willing to examine them and rearrange our thinking, we are never going to be considered a party of reform. We will be the party of the entrenched."

Johnson says legislative action will be needed. State law says teacher layoffs must be done by seniority. "Somebody has to speak up for the kids. Giving more power to principals and holding them accountable is good for kids. But it's not something we can just fix from inside the school system. It's going to have to come from the state and the federal level as well."

James Grathwol, Minneapolis school lobbyist at the State Capitol, said legislative bill has been proposed to weaken seniority rights.

"Basically, it says that schools cannot enter into contract that limit a superintendent's right to assign teachers," Grathwol said. "It has been heard in the House and referred to K-12 School Finance Committee. It has yet to be heard in the Senate."

Fergus Falls Republican Rep. Cal Larson sponsored the bill, House File 1831.

Said Grathwol, "I don't think the Minneapolis delegation will support it, but it is exactly the kind of thing that Minneapolis School Superintendent David Jennings is looking for."

Despite similar goals, Johnson is wary about her possible allies across the partisan aisle. "I don't think we should be handling education like the Republicans want," Johnson said. "But if we don't change, it is going to be every school district and every educator that gets left behind."