By David C. Olson, Guest Columnist
Minnesota businesses have traditionally distinguished themselves with their ability to compete in the global marketplace. A highly trained workforce drives our success.
The bad news: That excellence faces a shaky future due to an unsatisfactory disparity in K-12 student performance. Minnesota has among the widest achievement gaps in the country – persisting among racial groups as well as across socioeconomic levels. The problem surfaces from Worthington to Duluth, from Winona to Moorhead.
The good news: We can change our course if we focus on teacher quality – the single-most important in-school factor in determining student success. The Minnesota Chamber of Commerce advocates legislation that links student academic progress to teacher evaluations, ending the practice of laying off teachers solely on the basis of “last in, first out.”
Developing the best talent is naturally a priority of employers. But the goal to educate all our kids is much broader than a “business” issue. Ensuring a top-notch education is essential for high school graduates to enter the workforce or continue their education.
An important first step is to hire and then keep the most effective teachers in our K-12 classrooms. Chief authors for HF 1870/SF 1690 are Rep. Branden Petersen of Andover and Sen. Pam Wolf of Spring Lake Park. Studies consistently show that highly effective teachers have positive long-term impact on kids’ lifelong success.
We welcome conversation that will lead to better prepared high school graduates, but we dismiss rhetoric that performance-based layoffs unfairly targets teachers. To that end, here’s what the bill does and does not do:
• It identifies and protects the best teachers and, when layoffs are needed, removes the least effective teachers – regardless of their years in the classroom;
• It is not an end-around for administrators to give senior, more “expensive” teachers bad evaluations so they can fire them and hire “cheaper” teachers. This practice would be illegal, unprofessional and unethical, and it would do nothing to improve student achievement; and
• It is not a means to oppose additional funding for schools. Education funding will always be on the table, but the answer to increasing student academic progress is not always more money or lower class sizes. Some districts with the highest per-pupil funding have the highest achievement gaps in the state.
Teachers generally do improve over their first several years of teaching, but the number of years in the classroom – by itself – provides little indication of the quality of teaching. Experienced and inexperienced teachers alike can be highly effective or ineffective.
This bill simply allows school districts to negotiate a plan to base layoff decisions on teacher effectiveness as well as seniority. Minnesota is one of 11 states that require districts to use seniority as the deciding factor in layoff decisions.
Lawmakers and Gov. Mark Dayton took the first step in 2011, passing legislation that laid the groundwork for a statewide evaluation system to recognize effective teachers and improve the skills of less effective teachers. That system is expected to be in place by 2015. The next reform – and one that should be taken immediately – is to enable districts to retain effective teachers.
David Olson is president of the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce. For more information on the Chamber’s legislative advocacy, visit www.mnchamber.com.