PUBLISHER's NOTEBOOK: Bill to gut tenure dead, but not forgotten
Wednesday, March 07, 2012 6:11 AM
A bill that would have basically ended the tenure system, which protects older teachers and makes newer teachers the "last hired, first fired," made it through the Minnesota Legislature early this session before being vetoed by Gov. Mark Dayton.
The action reminded me of a discussion I had with a local teacher many years ago on the same subject. He argued that removing tenure would open up teachers' job security to politics and the whims of administrators that may or may not like particular teachers.
My thoughts were "welcome to the real world." Prior to moving here and managing my own small business, I had worked for some large companies where I had seen some of the problems he identified, but that is something people deal with all their lives. Maybe it isn't in school, which too often tries to make everyone winners, but we all learn that life isn't fair. We just have to deal with it.
Not that I wasn't sympathetic to his concerns. A union should have some benefits and teachers should have some security so they can focus on educating students rather than playing the political games to keep their job.
The reality is there is no perfect system. A chaotic system can make employees insecure and distracted from their core function. An overly protective system can lead to lack of growth among some people who feel they earned entitlements based solely on the years they show up for work.
The bill approved by the Legislature was sponsored by a middle school teacher, Pam Wolf, R-Spring Lake Park, in the Senate. She said the change would restore basic fairness.
"In the event of a layoff, teachers would be laid off based on their effectiveness," Wolf told the Star Tribune, noting that under the current system, a teacher could have decades of experience but still end up first in line for layoffs by transferring to another school and losing seniority. "Seniority does not mean experience. ... Experience does not necessarily mean effectiveness," she said.
Opponents say the legislation is an attack on unions and an attempt to allow districts a means to lay off the most experienced and highest paid employees merely to save money.
The main flaw in the bill, so it seems, is that it only dealt with layoffs during a budget crisis. That's why opponents feared it was a way to gut hefty contracts. But, even proponents wondered why this should be an issue only when budget problems arise.
Shouldn't ineffective teachers be dealt with before layoffs are necessary? Wouldn't we want the best teachers educating our children all the time?
Perhaps what the state should be looking at is a more consistent teacher evaluation system so that the best teachers are in our classrooms at all times, whether there is a budget crisis or not. If a teacher is underperforming, than steps should be required to improve. If there is no improvement, then the teacher should be removed.
Now, that is easier said than done. Teaching students isn't like manufacturing a product. There are many variables, such as socio-economic factors, family life and personality, that affect the success of students. Not all effective teachers are well-liked or charismatic. And, experience does count for something.
Still, focusing on teacher effectiveness is a worthwhile goal. It may not be as hard to get bipartisan support as some people think.
One of the first bills signed by Gov. Dayton this session requires would-be teachers to pass a college-level basic skills test before they can lead a classroom. Current law allows teacher candidates who failed a basic skills test to receive and even renew a temporary one-year teaching license up to two more times. The new bill had overwhelming support in the House and Senate.
Perhaps the state should look at more stringent license renewal requirements, as well. Years in a profession do not mean stagnation or ineffectiveness. However, it seems impossible that all teachers are good ones once they reach tenure, usually after three years on the job.
Strengthening teacher evaluations, and thus accountability, also has benefits for teachers. Too often, you hear negative comments about certain longtime teachers along the lines of they are just putting in their time because they can't be fired.
That likely isn't true in most cases, but with tenure trumping effectiveness, teachers are always open to such shots on their profession. A system that has more accountability would be more rewarding for those teachers doing a good job.
Most teachers are doing a good job and Minnesota education has a good reputation so there is no reason to radically overhaul our system to correct a problem that may not exist.
On the other hand, quality education is key to the future of this state and our national economy. No potential improvements in educating our children should be off limits. Not even one, as my teacher friend pointed out many years ago, in which changes may alter the security his colleagues take for granted.