Shaping the school reform discussion

Can an advocacy group influence teacher contract negotiations?

Since November, when they unveiled their Contract for Student Achievement, a five-point manifesto that called for a remaking of school staffing rules, the parent and community activists behind Put Kids First Minneapolis have had an undeniable impact on the public education conversation in Minneapolis.

It’s less clear, though, if they are changing the conversation inside a conference room at the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers headquarters in Northeast, where district and union leaders are hammering out the actual details of the 2011–2013 teacher contract.

“I think the short answer would be, ‘No,’” said Seth Kirk, a co-founder of Put Kids First Minneapolis and Southwest-area parent. “… There’s a reluctance for both sides to talk about it.”

The Contract for Student Achievement calls for teacher placement decisions based on “effectiveness” instead of seniority, greater leeway in hiring licensed teachers from outside the district and a quicker process for removing underperforming teachers, among other contract changes. The campaign has angered some teachers, who argue that Put Kids First Minneapolis has overstated the role teacher seniority rules plays in the district on its website and in public statements, MFT President Lynn Nordgren said.

“They’re assuming that the [achievement] gap exists because there are bad teachers, and what we’re saying is that there is so much more to it,” Nordgren said. Her “so much more” includes factors like poverty, homelessness, access to early childhood education and class size.

Lynnell Mickelsen, another co-founder of Put Kids First Minneapolis, agreed with Nordgren that all those factors play a role in student learning.

“We don’t have to choose between fighting poverty and asking for common-sense changes to the contract,” Mickelsen said. “We have to do both.”

Teacher evaluation

Mickelsen sent three sons through Minneapolis Public Schools and the youngest graduated from Southwest High School just last spring.

“My experience in 17 years in the system is that 75–80 percent of teachers my kids had were OK, good or great, and there were a whole lot of them in the good and great category,” she said.

Kirk agreed that ineffective teachers are “more the exception than the rule” in Minneapolis.

“We get hung up on this good-bad thing,” he said. “I think teachers are maybe effective in different places or are effective with different kids, but that’s part of what an evaluation system (would do) — help figure that out.”

It’s what is seen as the lack of an effective teacher evaluation system, along with seniority-based placement rules and the lack of racial diversity in the teacher work force, which the Contract for Student Achievement aims to address.

The union and district are currently working together to develop a teacher evaluation system, and a new state law will require all districts to use such a tool in the future. And Nordgren added that teachers already get performance feedback through annual surveys from parents and students, their principals and peer development teams.

“What we’re doing is improving on what we already have,” she said. “… As a union, we’ve always been about sharpening the saw.”

Nordgren said a professional support process was already in place to build struggling teachers’ skills through peer support and goal setting — or, if they can’t or won’t change, move teachers out of the district — but Put Kids First Minneapolis argues that same process isn’t working well or quickly enough.

Put Kids First Minneapolis is not solely focused on getting poor teachers out of the system; it also aims to change the rules in a way that will bring in a younger, more diverse teaching force. A system that gives significant weight to seniority perpetuates the lack of diversity among Minneapolis teachers, Mickelsen argued.

Nordgren questioned the hiring data underlying that argument, and also pointed out that fewer minority candidates are applying for the jobs not just in Minneapolis, but nationally.

“It’s not seniority that’s keeping teachers of color away; it’s that there are not enough teachers of color in the first place,” she said.

Looking for transparency

Chris Stewart, a former School Board member who now heads the Action for Equity campaign, is one of at least six former board members who have signed the Contract for Student achievement. Stewart has also been one of the few observers at negotiating sessions, a public but sparsely attended process.

“The district has put some things on the table that look remarkably close to what we want, so we’ll see if they survive,” he said.

One of Stewart’s chief complaints is what he sees as a lack of transparency in the process. While a previous School Board posted goals for the negotiations on the district’s website, Stewart noted this board had not.

The union and district have agreed not to talk about the negotiations publicly, except in joint statements. This has often put Nordgren in the position of being the lone voice to counter the Contract for Student Achievement chorus.

School Board Vice Chair Alberto Monserrate, who has taken heat for being perceived as too close to either the union or Put Kids First Minneapolis at various times, said he didn’t think the Contract for Student Achievement was shaping his colleagues’ approach to negotiations.

“They’ve got some good ideas, and I think board members will agree with some [and] disagree with others,” Monserrate said. “So, it’s not like it’s ignored, but I don’t really see it influencing negotiations.”

Reach Dylan Thomas at [email protected]