Put Kids First Minneapolis, one of the main organizers of the Contract for Student Achievement campaign, has as one of its tenets: “Make effectiveness, not seniority, the chief criteria for teachers’ hiring, placement and lay-off decisions. Further, tie staffing decisions to a transparent teacher evaluation process that include student growth data, classroom observations by trained evaluators, student surveys and feedback from parents.”
Steve Liss, Chief of Operations and Policy at MPS, said performance-based staffing is a “complicated question.” The system in place, he said, which is designed to improve performance and to “exit” teachers if performance does not improve, is “looked on as a model across the country.”
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.
When teachers struggle
In the past fifteen years, MFT has undergone a number of reforms, some of which were worked on by current MFT president Lynn Nordgren, who was elected in 2008. A publication produced by the Harvard Graduate School of Education reported that, back in the 1990s, Nordgren coordinated committees that planned the details of a new Peer Assistance and Review (PAR) system. This system was then adopted as part of the teacher contract in 1997.
The PAR system replaced principal observations and evaluations with a new team-based approach. A Professional Development Process (PDP) involving peer mentors was implemented to support both new and veteran teachers, while a Peer Support Process (PSP) was created as an intervention that could lead to dismissal.
If a teacher is struggling with their practice, there could be “any number of reasons,” Nordgren said in an interview for this article, such as having switched grade levels, or schools. “They may just need some extra support… some teachers do struggle within the profession,” Nordgren said. “What we do is move in with the professional support process, and the teacher gets mentored and coached by a team of people that assess and assist them.” Some teachers make it through that process, and others are “unwilling or unable to make the improvements needed,” she said.
Since PSP started 12 years ago, about 500 Minneapolis teachers have moved through the process, Nordgren said. The majority of those teachers made the decision that teaching wasn’t for them, and either resigned or retired.
Former School Board member Pam Costain, who signed the Contract for Student Achievement, said that policy and practice don’t always coincide, however. Under the current policy, “if you are under discipline (under the PAR system), your discipline at that school does not follow you to next school.” Costain said that a school might not discipline a teacher but rather simply “move them along” to another school — for example, moving an art teacher out of a school by closing the entire art department. “Savvy principals learn how to game the system by gaming personnel at their building,” Costain said. While she acknowledged that many say the process has improved, firing teachers “takes way too long and gives teachers way too many chances.”
Lynnell Mickelsen, a parent of several children who went to Minneapolis Public Schools including Southwest High School, is a co-founder of Put Kids First Minneapolis and a leader in the Contract for Student Achievement campaign. She said that the PAR system takes too long, and is too complicated. “What I’m told is that the PAR system is so slow and so easily reversed and the bar is so low,” she said. Also, Mickelsen believes that not enough teachers are referred to the process. “We have principals who want to be liked and who don’t want to do the hard work of PAR,” she said. “To put one teacher in PAR takes 20 percent of their work, and it goes on for a year. It’s really time consuming and I’m told it’s only used for the most horrendous cases.”
Mickelsen also doesn’t believe that a peer group should be in charge of disciplining other teachers. “It’s great for mentoring,” she said, “but for the really hard decisions, it’s not working out. No peer group wants to say to a colleague ‘you should lose your job, you should lose your health insurance. Peers just can’t do it.”
Mickelsen’s experience as a parent was that 20 percent of the teachers that served her kids were not good teachers. The biggest example was a band teacher who could not play a single instrument.
That teacher did go through the PAR process and is no longer on the district payroll, but Mickelsen believes it took too long and the teacher should never have been hired in the first place. The only reason she was, Mickelsen said, is because schools have to pick from a small pool of tenured excessed teachers in hiring decisions. “Lyn [Nordgren] would say that schools can hire whoever they want,” said Mickelsen. “You can hire anyone you want as long as the [excessed teachers] are given full pay and benefits. The district cannot afford it.”
Micklesen said she’s not against unions, or against tenure, but she believes the system right now is not working. “If you’re an ineffective teacher you should have 12 months or less,” she said. While she believes teachers deserve due process, she said the PAR system needs to be shortened. “You’d give them three or months,” she said.
Placing teachers in schools
A lay-off is different than a termination. “A layoff occurs when there is a loss of position, many times due to fewer students needing to be served in a program/grade, etc,” said Rachel Hicks, Assistant Director of Media Relations/ Public Affairs at MPS. “A termination may occur because of misconduct/discipline concerns, performance issues or insubordination. A tenured teacher who is terminated by the district cannot be placed at any school in the district.” However, if a teacher is tenured, they have a right to due process and a hearing before they are terminated.
When there is movement of teacher positions in the district due to programs closing or another reason that doesn’t include termination, the laid off or “excessed” teachers can be “matched” with schools. Matching means there is mutual consent on the part of the school and the teacher, arrived at through the interview-and-select process. As a last resort, teachers may be “placed” in a position at a school without mutual consent. In order to be “placed,” a teacher must be tenured and their licensure must fit the position.
Minneapolis doesn’t have the infamous “rubber rooms” like those in New York, where teachers who have not been placed are assigned with no duties and paid for just being present. When a teacher is “excessed” at MPS, they are eventually placed in a position in the district, according to Steve Liss.
“There’s a lot of nuance,” said Liss, “but at the end of the day, if a teacher hasn’t been selected, they will be placed into vacancies. Over the years, that number has reduced.” If a teacher is excessed, Liss said, they can either leave the district, taking with them a certain lump sum or pension payment, they can elect to get placed, or they can work as a long term substitute, where they would be paid a full teacher salary.
According to a MPS data request provided Lyn Micklesen, in 2009, 207 excessed teachers were placed by mutual consent, and 44 were placed without mutual consent. In 2010, there were 269 excessed teachers placed by mutual consent, and 74 placed without mutual consent.
According to Rachel Hicks, Assistant Director of Community Relations, in 2009-2010, there was a 6.2 percent “fill rate” (excessed teachers placed without mutual consent as a percentage of all excessed teachers), in 2010-2011, there was a 10.8 percent fill rate of excess teachers, and in 2011-2012 there was an 8.6 percent fill rate.
Nordgren takes issue with the assumption that teachers who have not been placed are not good teachers. “That’s simply not true,” she said. “There just simply aren’t enough positions.” If there’s instability or movement of teachers, according to Nordgren, it’s not a result of the contract, but rather of other factors, such as new schools opening, school consolidating, or schools closing, or the recently started program Changing School Options. “We’ve had so many changes,” she said, “in moving people around. Sometimes the district used to lay off too many people…. They’ve gotten better at that.”
Evaluating teachers according to student assessments
The Contract for Student Achievement letter calls for a more transparent teacher evaluation process that includes “student growth data, classroom observations by trained evaluators, student surveys and feedback from parents.”
Relying on test data of student achievement is a major sticking point for some. One of the main criticisms of using student test data for evaluating teachers is many varying factors influence the results, such as poverty, race, ELL, etc.
Chris Stewart of Action for Equity Minnesota said that criticism is “fair enough,” but that testing can control for those factors and “still be able to determine whether teachers are having an impact.”
As for what particular evaluation system MPS could use, Stewart said he doesn’t want to get too prescriptive. He said an evaluation system is already in place, but what is needed is “dramatic action.” According to Stewart, “We need more than slow tweaking over time.”
“The criticism is that no method of evaluating is good enough,” said Stewart. “The teachers don’t want to be held accountable for test scores of their students, especially for poor, highly mobile students, who don’t have food to eat, etc. The list goes on and on: ‘They’re so deficient they can’t learn.’” However, Stewart said, hanging onto that “belief gap” narrative is the problem.
Fufa Teferi, who is an ABD from the University of St. Thomas where he studied achievement of Black people world wide, and currently an elementary school teacher at MPS, said that the reason testing doesn’t work is because “students are human beings. Some of what we measure is useful and some of what we measure is not useful.”
Stewart’s statement that societal factors can be controlled in evaluations doesn’t hold water for Teferi: “They told us they measure this. At one point they actually measured black folks and how they can learn. They can sound convincing. The social science is not a true science. I’ve studied black education for the past 12 years… I’m sure Chris [Stewart] has no idea about what measurements look at.”
For Teferi, what we really need to do is look at the history of the achievement gap. How did it start? How did we get here? “Society is such a class society. Color happens to be a major indicator of class. As much as we want to wish it away, it happens systematically. There’s no honest discussion of how this happening.”
Certainly, the achievement gap that currently plagues our country, and our city in particular, is a complicated question, and there is no easy solution. As teacher contract negotiations continue, we’ll have to see what the MPS administration and the teachers come up with.