New teacher layoffs may have broader impact on Minn. education

Sara Fellman updates her wall
Sara Fellman updates her wall for the next day's classes. Her students work in groups every day to accomplish lessons. Fellman teachers language arts. She was recently laid off as a result of budget cuts.
MPR Photo/Sea Stachura

Sara Fellman has found a unique way to teach language arts at Winona Middle School.

Graphic: Teacher cuts
Minnesota's schools are losing a generation of teachers to layoffs. A sampling of districts across the state shows many are cutting teachers because of budget cuts. Many of those teachers have fewer than five years experience and some of those teachers are going to other states for work.
MPR Graphic/Than Tibbetts

On a colorful wall Fellman has written instructions for the day's assignment. Her groups are arranged by ability.

"They'll have all the materials that they'll need, and they will start to work independently in their groups," Fellman said. "Somebody has the leader card. Somebody has the encourager card. Somebody has the timekeeper card."

She said this is an approach to classroom education that newer teachers are using.

"We're meeting the needs of the kids, the lower-functioning students and the higher-functioning students. And they've taken ownership," she said.

Fellman also teaches a remedial reading class instead of having a prep hour, and she started a school spirit program. But next year, she won't be around. She's been laid off due to budget cuts. Winona cut 13 percent of its teaching staff this year.

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"[This] has a big impact on the ability of the district to retain its best teachers."

Minnesota Public Radio News surveyed 10 school districts around the state, including Moorhead, Bloomington and Rochester. Those districts are cutting 6 percent of their teachers on average.

In Minnesota, districts start by laying off non-tenured teachers. Teachers get tenure when they sign their fourth annual contract with the school district.

"What you are seeing is a hollowing out of the teaching force. There are fewer and fewer junior teachers," said Dan Weisberg, vice president of policy at the New Teacher Project in New York.

Recently, Minneapolis Public Schools hired the organization to evaluate how teacher turnover affects the district. Findings show that last year MPS laid off half of the district's non-tenured teachers. Weisberg said losing junior teachers is troubling for any district.

"It's a huge concern on a number of levels," Weisberg said. "You have to be worry about who it is who will be teaching in Minneapolis Public Schools four, five, six years down the road as the veteran teachers start to retire."

Sara Fellman
Sara Fellman is a sixth-grade teacher at Winona Middle School. The district laid her off for the coming school year because of budget cuts. Fellman hopes to be rehired.
MPR Photo/Sea Stachura

In each of the last two school years Minneapolis laid off 7 percent of its teachers. This year, the district has made an effort to avoid cutting teachers. Thirteen teachers will be laid off, amounting to less than one percent.

"That has a big impact on the ability of the district to retain its best teachers and the ability of teachers to concentrate on their students," Weisberg said.

He said layoffs create unstable classrooms and prevent teaching teams from forming. Senior teachers can't pass along knowledge and younger teachers can't develop new techniques.

Nationally, teaching is a growth industry. The U.S. Department of Labor reports that teaching will produce more jobs than most other fields between now and 2016. But the growth is occurring in states like Nevada, Texas, Arizona and Georgia.

Melanie Reap is the education department chair at Winona State University. She said she knows that new teachers are leaving the state. No organization keeps statistics on how many Minnesota teachers left the state following their layoffs.

"When it comes down to advising students, we're going to have to advise them into the areas that are growth areas even within Minnesota: Special Ed, Math, Science, Technology, ESL," Reap said. "Then we're going to have to ask them to think broader than Minnesota, I'm afraid."

Winona Middle School teacher Sara Fellman actually did that. She taught in Colorado, but returned to Winona. She said that makes her dedication to this school all the more painful.

"It's hard, and you can tell when you talk to other people that they think that same thought," Fellman said. "How is it that you work so hard and you change things, and somebody who maybe is on their way out to retirement or they are ready to be done, they get to stay?"

A report by one research group said that junior teachers tend to support performance evaluations, rather than seniority, as their preferred method of deciding who gets laid off.