Video by Oliver Dystra and Cirien Saadeh, text by Mike McIntee
During Tim Pawlenty’s term as Minnesota Governor, the state’s largest teacher union was one of his favorite targets. Pawlenty often accused Education Minnesota of standing in the way of education reform. The union opposed Pawlenty’s attempts to implement performance based pay measures called Q-comp. Now that Pawlenty has been replaced by DFLer Mark Dayton, the union wants to consider using some elements of education reform Pawlenty was pushing, but with more nuance.
“I think a lot of Minnesotans would be surprised to learn that many teachers go years without a performance review,” said Education Minnesota President Tom Dooher. “That failure is inexcusable. It’s a disservice to the students, their parents, the taxpayers and the teachers themselves.”
In addition to the performance reviews, Dooher says the union supports alternative teacher licensing. Pawlenty had been pushing an alternative licensing program called “Teach For America”. The union opposed Teach For America saying it badly weakened the standards for becoming a teacher and could put unqualified people in charge of a classroom.
“We objected because it makes no sense that while we’re demanding more from our students, we would demand so much less from their teachers and then expect better results,” said Dooher.
However, Dooher says there is a need for “alternative pathways” for teachers when there are shortages of teachers, either geographically or in subject areas. Or where mid-career professionals want to teach in their area of expertise, there should be accelerated pathways into the profession.
Dooher said candidates for alternative teaching licenses would need to demonstrate they actually know how to teach children.
He said they must have a degree in the field they’re going to teach, pass reading, writing and math skills tests, and they must be supervised for at least 90 school days before they’re fully in charge of a classroom.
“We will support responsible alternative licensure efforts. We won’t support measures that lower teaching standards or put unqualified people in front of our children,” said Dooher.
I’m here today to share our ideas about how the Legislature should deal with three education issues in the current session.
One involves steps to immediately address the achievement gap.
The second is a plan for performance reviews of teachers that will make our strong teaching profession even stronger.
And the third is a responsible plan to create alternative pathways into teaching that doesn’t shortcut quality in the classroom.
I want to stress that all of the things we propose are based in research and actual teaching practice.
We need to tackle the achievement gap on two fronts:
By taking steps to help current students,
And taking other steps to help future students.
First, the present.
We propose that all school districts implement a plan for helping parents and communities get more involved in the schools.
We’re proposing things like home visits to student families, and orientation programs for parents and students so families and teachers can work as partners to set high expectations and make sure those expectations get met.
Second, it’s critical to bring support services directly into the schools. Things like medical screenings, school nursing and programs that ensure children are ready to learn in school.
School districts in Minnesota and elsewhere that are already doing these things are enjoying encouraging results.
Third – we must address a disturbing fact that’s been kept remarkably quiet in Minnesota: class size.
Our state is now hovering near the very bottom in the nation for elementary school class sizes. We’re behind even struggling states like Mississippi.
There’s no disputing this fact: Children who struggle in school learn better in smaller classes.
Class sizes must get smaller.
Ultimately, all of these achievement gap concepts, and others, should be in every school. But as a start, these efforts should be focused on the schools where students struggle the most.
Last year the federal government identified 32 of them.
We propose focusing our beginning efforts on a similar number of schools identified by the Minnesota Department of Education.
As for future students, we all know that children do better when families do better. And we also know that the foundation for success in school and later in life begins even before a child enters a classroom.
So we support a statewide, district-by-district assessment to determine where effective early childhood services exist, then make a focused effort to improve those services where it’s necessary.
Also, we know that high-quality kindergarten leads directly to success later in school, and later in life, so we support all-day, every-day kindergarten in all communities in Minnesota.
All of the steps I’ve outlined are proven methods – in both research and in practice – of closing the achievement gap.
In terms of our youngest children, former Federal Reserve economist Dr. Art Rolnick estimates that for every dollar we invest in early childhood education, society as a whole gets a 12 percent return in the form of less crime, less welfare and a better workforce.
It is within our grasp to close the achievement gap in the state of Minnesota.
We can do this but only if everyone recognizes the complexity of the issue and only if everyone agrees that we all have a shared responsibility to solve it.
The second thing I want to talk to you about today is ensuring that only the best educators are teaching our children.
It should be said from the outset that the vast majority of Minnesota teachers do an outstanding job. Our nation-leading ACT scores and “third-in-the-nation” graduation rates prove it.
But Minnesota needs a stronger evaluation system that helps develop and support teachers.
I think a lot of Minnesotans would be surprised to learn that many teachers go years without a performance review. That failure is inexcusable. It’s a disservice to the students, their parents, the taxpayers and the teachers themselves.
Our union believes fair and thorough performance reviews are essential to keep teaching quality at its highest levels, so we propose the state require an annual review of teacher effectiveness.
Those reviews would take several forms. They would include:
Reviews by administrators.
In-class observations by a trained evaluator.
Review and input from teaching peers.
And a variety of measurements of student learning, including test results.
There is simply no room for ineffective teachers in our classrooms.
Lastly, I want to briefly discuss alternative pathways into teaching.
There is a responsible way to go about it, and we intend to work with anyone who will take a responsible approach to the issue. Previous alternative licensing proposals badly weakened the standards for becoming a teacher.
We objected because it makes no sense that while we’re demanding more from our students, we would demand so much less from their teachers and then expect better results.
Nevertheless, we have always felt there is value in alternative pathways, under the right circumstances — for instance, where there are shortages of teachers, either geographically or in subject areas. Or where mid-career professionals want to teach in their area of expertise, there should be accelerated pathways into the profession.
Candidates would need to demonstrate they actually know how to teach children:
They must have a degree in the field they’re going to teach.
They must pass reading, writing and math skills tests.
And they must be supervised for at least 90 schools days before they’re fully in charge of a classroom.
We will support responsible alternative licensure efforts. We won’t support measures that lower teaching standards or put unqualified people in front of our children.
One last thing before I take your questions.
Let’s not lose sight of this fact: Minnesota is one of the best education states in America.
We’re blessed with great students, great teachers and great community support.
Our focus, and our vision, should be on making a good thing even better.
We can do that if we all work together, and that is exactly my pledge today.