Bill: teacher evals overrule seniority in K-12 schools


A proposed bill in the state Legislature could drastically change how schools make staffing decisions in tough times by leveling the playing field for new teachers.

Currently, when a school district needs to layoff or discharge teachers, the district uses teacher seniority as the major factor. Teachers who have been with the school longer are often protected, while newer teachers are targets.

The new bill would allow districts to make staffing decisions based primarily on teacher evaluations rather than seniority alone.

“If you even want to call it a decision-making process,” said Rep. Branden Petersen, R-Andover, the author of the bill. “It’s an arbitrary process to make such a critical decision about the future of a teacher.”

Minnesota is one of 14 states that mandate that seniority be the deciding factor in layoff decisions, according to a 2010 report from the National Council on Teacher Quality.

This proposal is welcome news for new teachers, who are currently the first to go when a district must tighten its belt. Supporters say it will also raise teaching standards.

“For me, it’s a good thing,” said Amanda Borgardt, a graduate student in the elementary education initial licensure program at the University of Minnesota. It would “allow you to be looked at and decided if you’re teaching to your students’ needs.”

University student teacher Amanda Borgardt exchanges high-fives with her third grade students after class Friday at Earle Brown Elementary IB World School in Brooklyn Center. Below, she stamps students’ homework assignments after class.

The bill would also help retain good teachers, Petersen said. By basing discharge decisions on seniority, “inevitably, you are going to layoff some teachers who shouldn’t have been, and you are maybe going to keep some teachers who shouldn’t be kept,” he said.

Misty Sato, assistant professor of teacher development and science education at the University, said it’s unclear how teachers would be evaluated under the new mandate.

“One of the really big issues they’re going to have to face really quickly is if you don’t use seniority … to make decisions about layoffs or continued contracts, you have to use something else,” Sato said.

Sato serves on a state task force for the Minnesota Department of Education — the Teacher Evaluation Process Panel — that is trying to answer that question.

The state Legislature put forward a general teacher evaluation framework last year for the panel to work with, Sato said. The panel plans to create an evaluation process by 2014.

The framework stated that 35 percent of the evaluation must be based on student achievement in the classroom and performance on standardized tests. The remaining 65 percent is balanced around the teacher’s performance in the classroom, including principal and peer observation, student feedback and parent feedback, Sato said.

Because standardized testing would play such a large role in the proposed framework, one of the core questions the task force is trying to solve is how to evaluate teachers whose classes do not have standardized tests, like art or physical education.

Current standardized testing would only consider about 30 percent of the teaching workforce, such as math, reading and some science classes, Sato said.

“What are we going to do about the other 70 percent of teachers? Right now, we don’t have an answer for that question,” she said.

“It seems like we are over-testing kids, so it would be crazy to test them more,” said Randy Koch, principal of Earle Brown Elementary School in Brooklyn Center. The school partners with the University to have student teachers work in the classroom.

Teachers want better evaluation processes, Sato said, but they want it to be a fair process, which will take time to develop.

Koch agreed that the process needed to be fair and well thought out.

“Teachers want to hold themselves up to a high standard, and they’re open to being evaluated and open to becoming better, but the piece it comes down to is: Is the tool that’s being used to evaluate them fair?” Koch said. “It’s not [that teachers are] scared of being evaluated. It’s the process of that evaluation.”

Johanna Mueller, a graduate student in the elementary education initial licensure program at the University, has mixed feelings about how the proposal could help her as a new teacher.

As far as job reliability, she’s not sure she will see a difference. She said she doesn’t know any teachers that would fail a proposed evaluation.

But evaluations will help assure a higher quality of teaching overall, she said.

“I think it will help me because it will really hold me, as a new teacher, to a really high standard of teaching,” she said. “It will make it so I’m keeping up with current pedagogy.”

Ultimately, she hopes legislators working on the bill are spending time with the teachers and students it would impact.

“One of the big things stressed to us in our teacher training program is that the child needs to come first,” she said. “They are the most important thing in education, and I really hope that is something the people making this bill are thinking about as well.”

University student teacher Johanna Mueller plays games with her first grade class before the end of the day Friday at Earle Brown Elementary IB World School in Brooklyn Center.