Unless they’re striking or running for something, individual teachers rarely take center stage in election-year education conversations. Last Thursday, the League of Women Voters passed the microphone to five Minneapolis educators who described their conflicting perspectives on education policy in the classroom.
The League is a non-partisan political organization that is hosting numerous events this election cycle to inform voters about issues like education policy and voter ID. Thursday’s event took place one day after the first presidential debate, and, although the event was presented as a forum, not a debate, the tone was at times more combative than conciliatory, especially on the theme of teacher tenure and “last in, first out” policies.
Panelists responded to questions on topics ranging from teacher evaluation to testing, the achievement gap and student suspensions.
Agreement on the value of teacher evaluations
Moderator Karen Kelley, who sits on the board of various local education organizations, kicked off the forum with a question about how teacher evaluations impact instruction. There was no disagreement that classroom observations are powerful.
In Minneapolis, principals observe each teacher three times in a year, once formally and twice informally, but always with feedback. Teachers also get two visits from other teachers.
The system wasn’t always so robust. Panelist Paul Hegre, who taught for 23 years at Nawayee Center School and Seward Montessori, said two decades of teaching went by before anyone observed his classroom. “It changed my life to have a conversation about a lesson,” he said. Now he’s on special assignment helping develop the evaluation process.
On the beefed up evaluations, South High special education teacher Jim Barnhill said, “I think is going to have a massive influence on our teachers and students.”
Discord on LIFO
The panelists showed more discord over evaluations later in the night, after a question about the benefits and drawbacks of “last in first out” policies, that use the length of time a teacher has been teaching as the determining factor for layoffs.
Barnhill said that using evaluations to determine lay-offs would create a teacher-ranking system. It would discourage collaboration among teachers and prevent them from approaching principals with unpopular feedback.
James Kindle, an English language learner teacher at Anne Sullivan, disagreed, saying that strong teacher and administrator evaluation processes could prevent that. Kindle penned an anti-LIFO op-ed in the Star Tribune last spring.
“We need to accept the fact that some teachers are more effective than other teachers,” he told the audience. He added that we need systems that scale up the best teachers’ best practices. On LIFO, “I feel like it ultimately does a disservice to students.”
Panelist Crystal Ballard pointed out that teachers of color are often the first to be laid off, since they tend to lack seniority. She teaches in Olson Middle School’s college readiness program, AVID, and also serves on the African American Leadership Forum’s Education Workgroup.
Veteran teacher Susan Bell said, “I got pink slips year after year.” She taught for 38 years before moving to a test coordinator position at Hmong International Academy. She said, “If you’re a good teacher, you just know you’re going to have a job.”
Discipline, class size and the achievement gap
Asked what policies would elevate the achievement of all students and shrink the achievement gap between white and non-white students, Bell elicited applause from the audience with a call for smaller class sizes.
She pointed to 38-student fifth grade classrooms at Lake Harriet and Hmong International schools, and a seventh grade classroom with 44 students at Hmong International. She compared the reality with a 2008 referendum plan that would have put no more than 25 students in classrooms in grades 3 through 8.
Panelists agreed that the district’s disproportionate rate of suspension for African American students is a problem.
Kindle said his graduate education program included no classroom management training. He called for more professional development opportunities on the theme. Teachers also need to recognize the ways that race impacts their actions in class, he said.
Adjusting rules can help eliminate some distracting confrontations, said Barnhill. South High’s principal told Barnhill that a change to the district cell phone policy last year caused a 43 percent drop in suspensions at South. Barnhill said, “Trying to take a cell phone away from a student is not a pretty thing.”
Panelists closed with comments about how teacher evaluations can lead to new teaching techniques, and about how passionate teachers can make a difference in kids’ lives.
Ballard said, “We need the best teachers in front of our students who need it most.”
Barnhill condemned what he called the myth of the bad teacher. “You cannot imagine the morale drain that that has on the average teacher,” he said. “It makes it really hard to go back in the classroom each day.”