Minnesota bill puts teacher evaluations to the test again

ST. PAUL - Minnesota could join the dozen states that use teachers' job performance, not how long they've taught, as the primary factor when school districts cut staff.

ST. PAUL – Minnesota could join the dozen states that use teachers’ job performance, not how long they’ve taught, as the primary factor when school districts cut staff.

The change is a top priority for the new Republican leadership in the Minnesota House. For it to become law, though, Republicans need Terri Bonoff, a Minnetonka DFLer, to win support from some of her Senate colleagues for the bill she wrote with state Rep. Jenifer Loon, R-Eden Prairie. And they also have to win over Gov. Mark Dayton, who vetoed a similar bill in 2012.

Loon and Bonoff’s proposal would require school leaders to use teachers’ ratings from a newly implemented evaluations system as the top criteria when they make layoff decisions. Most staff cuts now are guided by a system called “Last In, First Out,” essentially how long a teacher has worked for a district, although state law allows other criteria to be negotiated.

Opponents such as the state teachers union say the effort creates “mistrust” and isn’t needed because school districts already can bargain with teachers on layoff rules.

In 2012, Dayton vetoed such a bill, calling it “vague” and saying it relied on a new evaluation system that was still under development. Two years later, he won re-election with strong support from the state teachers union, Education Minnesota.

Last month, Dayton panned the idea that such reforms to teachers union rules would lead to better student achievement. But the governor didn’t shut the door entirely, saying he would look at proposals with proven results.

Proposed changes

Most states have laws about how schools cut staff, but before 2010, few districts had robust teacher evaluation systems that were used to make decisions about hiring and firing. By this fall, a dozen states will require that performance be a key factor, and 10 states will prohibit considering seniority.

“Evaluations and a fair analysis of performance ought to be the main criteria for any job,” Bonoff said.

Loon and Bonoff say it’s common sense to use the new evaluations to give school leaders the flexibility they long have wanted to make sure students have the best teachers. Minnesota’s system includes measures of student achievement, classroom observations and input from students and parents.

“If you have an effective teacher in the classroom, those kids are going to learn,” Loon said.

Opponents say Minnesota law already allows school districts to negotiate layoff systems that include things other than seniority. About 40 percent of districts have such contract provisions.

They also argue forcing districts to use a new, untested evaluation system to fire teachers is a mistake that could lead to messy legal fights between districts and teachers who are let go.

“I think it leads to a lot of mistrust,” said Denise Specht, Education Minnesota president. “School districts have all the tools they need to hire, fire, assign and evaluate their staff.”

For instance, Specht noted that the St. Paul Public Schools teachers’ contract allows administrators to keep less experienced teachers that have special skills like a Montessori certification or who teach in language immersion programs. More experienced teachers would not be able to displace those educators unless they had similar abilities.

“(Current law) allows every school district to take unique needs for staffing and programs they have and build their layoff policy around it,” Specht said.

But Loon says what’s allowed under the law is different from what’s included in most teachers contracts. Modifying layoff language is controversial and can easily mire negotiations.

“It becomes a big sticking point with the union,” Loon said. “They don’t want to address it.”

Removing seniority from the layoff system might have made a difference for Kristine West, who now teaches economics at St. Catherine University in St. Paul. West says in her six years at Minneapolis’ Washburn High School she was laid off three times.

“I certainly found the entire situation to be exacerbating and frustrating,” West said. “It wasn’t a lot of fun to have that lack of job security.”

West now researches the teacher labor market at St. Kate’s. She doesn’t know if changing seniority rules would have kept her in a public school classroom, but she does believe a teacher’s performance should have a role in whether they keep their job.

She also doesn’t discount experience, which she believes plays a role in a teacher’s ability but doesn’t guarantee competency.

“Thoughtful reform would couple seniority and teacher effectiveness,” West said.

The bills would allow administrators to consider other criteria, but job performance would be the key factor.