“One of the most serious menaces we have at the present time in public education is that of insisting upon equal pay and automatic increases, irrespective of teaching efficiency.” So said Lotus D. Coffman, speaking on November 16, 1919 to the Minneapolis Federation of Women Teachers. Coffman, then Dean of the College of Education and later president of the University of Minnesota warned teachers of the dangers of unions and seniority.
What’s at stake: Minneapolis teacher contracts and beyond is a TC Daily Planet series looking at the 2011-2012 teacher contract negotiations in Minneapolis Public Schools. The first articles in the series focus on the contract process and participants, tenure and seniority, evaluation and discipline, and “high-priority” schools.
While the “achievement gap” wasn’t part of the general vocabulary in 1919, the resistance to the idea of seniority staffing that Coffman voiced is still an issue. As reported in the Minneapolis Morning Tribune, Coffman continued: “It is a well known and easily established fact that teachers teaching in the same grade and teaching the same subject may differ greatly as to their services. Our slogan should not be equal pay for equal work, if by that we mean equivalence of position, but equal pay for equal work of equal worth.”
During the past century, the union has fought for the rights of teachers — not just for pay, but for length of the school year, the right to have collective bargaining, rights against discrimination, etc. (The Minnesota Federation of Women Teachers merged with the Minneapolis Federation of Men Teachers to become the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers in 1957.) After all this time, the basic premise of the argument against seniority staffing remains remarkably the same — teachers’ pay should reflect the quality of their teaching as opposed to the length of time they have been teaching.
This year, a new group called the Contract for Student Achievement campaign has focused on the issue of seniority, in the wake of documentaries such as Waiting for Superman, which question both seniority and tenure. The main thrust of the Contract for Student Achievement organizers is a shift toward performance-based staffing. Its spokespersons claim Minneapolis is not just failing by reason of the achievement gap, but also failing to be competitive globally with top level students.
Contract for Student Achievement has an impressive sign-on list of organizational and individual supporters, including several past school board members.
Chris Stewart, who is a leader of both CSA and Action for Equity Minnesota (AFE), says the Contract for Student Achievement is “not about collective bargaining, it’s about process.” However, they do offer a set of five recommendations about how schools should be staffed.
- Shift to performance-based staffing.
- Allow every Minneapolis school to hire from the widest possible talent pool.
- End forced placements of teachers in schools that do not choose to hire them.
- Extend learning time for those who need it.
- Remove poor performers.
“We have to think about what’s best for schools,” Stewart said. “The thrust of our proposal is that more decisions should be made at the school site level for what they do in their school — it’s the ultimate democratic ideal.” The way it is now, he says, principals really have to struggle to keep teachers they want to keep.
While criticisms of tenure-based staffing and the seniority system have been occurring since the very beginning of teachers’ unions, Minneapolis faces specific challenges in lowering the achievement gap for students of color and economically disadvantaged students. In his writing about the issue, Stewart talks about “the belief gap” that creates a system that doesn’t believe that children from poor and minority communities can succeed.
Minneapolis Federation of Teachers president Lynn Nordgren says the achievement gap isn’t the only problem. “We are in a fix-it mentality,” she said. “We need a renaissance in education. We can’t just close the gap, we have to raise the bar.”
Nordgren asserts that the union isn’t blaming poverty, but rather is asking what we can do about it. “Because it does impact that child over time,” she said. “If the child doesn’t have a bed to sleep it, if they don’t have access in technology… how can we bridge that divide? There’s no silver bullet.”
Bill English, from the African American Leadership Forum, says that while the achievement gap may have many causes — poverty levels, unengaged families — “all evidence says that the single most important attribute for achievement is teacher advocacy.” Yes, society needs to continue to work on poverty issues and housing issues, English says, but the “district has to change what goes on in the classroom.”
Teachers’ role in achievement gap has been a lightning rod for a national debate. There are those that assert that cause of the achievement gap lies with teachers, as New York City Schools Chancellor Joel I. Klein did in reaction to a study by McKinsey and Company where he said “the study vindicated the idea that the root cause of test-score disparities was not poverty or family circumstances, but subpar teachers and principals,” according to the New York Times.
Not so, said Diane Ravitch, a Research Professor of Education at New York University and nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, who has served three presidents (Bush I, Bush II and Clinton) in high-ranking posts in the Department of Education. Ravitch said Klein and others used the McKinsey and Company study to say something that the report did not actually say.
Ravitch has been critical of blaming educators for the achievement gap, writing recently that, “Most research studies agree… that evaluating teachers on the basis of their students’ test scores is fraught with inaccuracy and promotes narrowing of the curriculum to only the subjects tested, encouraging some districts to drop the arts or other nontested subjects.”
Judith Warner, in Time Magazine, also questions school reform, saying poverty is the biggest indicator of performance. “Where a child comes from and what he or she goes home to at the end of the day — that really determines success in school,” she writes.
Minneapolis Elementary school teacher Teferi Fufa, who studied the achievement gap at the University of St. Thomas in a Ph.D. program, believes that we need to have honest discussions about class and race within the historical context of the achievement. “This decade, what people have decided to do is blame teachers. Who are good teachers? If you look at good teachers, these young people that work 14 hours a day… then they leave. Students need teachers with experience, who have worked with a variety of kids who can give them the guidance they need. It’s not just pedagogy — they also need a personal relationship. Young people don’t have the time.”
Fufa, currently an elementary school teacher at Marcy Open calls foul on the assertions made by CSA supporters. “They are totally ignorant or totally ignore the reason why tenure laws came into effect,” he said. “They say you don’t need to represent yourself because there are rules in place and you don’t need union protection. That’s not true historically.”