Minn. teachers weigh in on proposed tenure shakeup

Jana Meckler
Jana Meckler lines up her students at the end of a music class at Little Canada Elementary School in a file photo. A bill making its way through the Legislature would allow school administrators to consider a teacher's performance in the classroom when cutting jobs.
MPR File Photo/Tom Weber

A bill making its way through the Legislature would allow school administrators to consider a teacher's performance in the classroom, instead of just seniority, when cutting jobs.

The measure would eliminate the so-called "last in, first out" approach to layoffs. Although some teachers think it's time to shake the system up, many are opposed to any change in the long-standing system of tenure, a form of job security for classroom veterans.

Among them is Annie Olson-Reiners, who has been a teacher for five years, four of them in her first-grade classroom at Nuevas Fronteras, a Spanish immersion school in Cottage Grove, Minn.

Olson-Reiners, who received tenure just last year, likes the current system of favoring senior teachers during layoffs. She said most of her fellow teachers feel the same.

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"When I ask my colleagues about their thoughts on tenure so many of them say 'It's what we have,' " she said. "It's not perfect, but it's not the amount of security that people really believe that it is."

Olson-Reiners fears that abandoning a system that considers seniority first could open the door for administrators to arbitrarily fire teachers they don't like.

Susan Marsh, a ninth-grade government and geography teacher in Shakopee, Minn., worries that economic pressures might compel school officials to shed experienced teachers.

"It's not perfect, but it's not the amount of security that people really believe that it is."

With 22 years of teaching under her belt, Marsh knows that administrators could hire two younger teachers for the price of her salary.

"The business side of me gets that," she said. "But the other side of me says 'But don't you want experienced, qualified people in the classroom? Are you willing to take a risk on people who are just starting out versus people who have experience?' "

Marsh is not altogether opposed to a system that takes into consideration teacher effectiveness in the classroom. But she's concerned about how teachers would be evaluated under such a new system.

Nancy Carpenter, who teaches math at Como High School in St. Paul, said that's a big question for all Minnesota teachers, and something that has yet to come out of the debate at the capitol.

"What's the criteria used?" she asked. "How often are they conducted? Is there any opportunity or effort made to help the teacher improve his or her teaching?"

Carpenter notes that there already is a system to dismiss under-performing teachers. Administrators can put them on notice and fire them if their work doesn't improve.

During the debate at the State Capitol, proponents of the change claimed that schools are hanging on to bad teachers under the seniority system.

That isn't so, said Tom Odendahl, who teaches economics at Roosevelt High School in Minneapolis.

"No one is protected if they're doing a bad job," he said. "We're not protected because we're more senior than someone else."

Odendahl said the move to scrap the seniority system is a solution to a problem Minnesota schools don't have.

The National Council on Teacher Quality sees it differently. A year ago the group gave Minnesota a failing grade for its effort to fire under-performing teachers.

There are some teachers who favor changing the "last in, first out" system, but they are outnumbered by those who don't want the change.

"I think it's kind of hard to be a teacher with this opinion," said Jeanne Fimmen, who teaches third-grade English at Eagle Heights Spanish Immersion School in Eden Prairie, Minn.

Fimmen is in her third year of teaching at the school, and as a non-tenured teacher she expects to receive her third layoff notice soon, although she also expects the school to again rehire her.

But her experience with layoffs isn't the reason she favors changing the seniority system for teachers.

Fimmen said the current system protects teachers who should be fired for poor performance.

"What other job in the world can you automatically have a job and not be held accountable to be effective?" she asked.

The measure changing how teacher tenure works in Minnesota has been passed in the State House. It passed the Senate Education Committee on Tuesday. Its next stop is the Senate floor.