New teachers union president Denise Specht wants fewer assessment tests, more classroom support

Denise Specht
Denise Specht was elected the new president of Education Minnesota, the state's teachers union, in April.
Photo courtesy Education Minnesota

The new president of Minnesota's teachers union wants a reduction in the number of assessment tests students take each year.

Denise Specht took over as leader of Education Minnesota on July 1, replacing Tom Dooher. She is asking state officials, school districts and teachers to find an alternative to high stakes testing as a way to measure student progress.

"How can we be accountable but also provide the tools, the data, and the assessments necessary for educators to make good decisions for their students and to make sure kids are learning, " she said in an interview Tuesday.

Specht, 47, has been the union's secretary-treasurer for the last six years. The Buffalo native began teaching in 1989 Texas after earning her Master's degree from St. Cloud State University. Specht moved back to Minnesota in 1992 to teach elementary school in Forest Lake. In 1995 she took a job in the Centennial school district where she taught until taking a position at Education Minnesota in 2007.

This spring, Specht was elected union president, defeating three-term president Tom Dooher. She credits her victory to union members looking for a new direction in leadership.

Specht said she'll advocate for more support for teachers, including more training and mentoring all throughout their careers.

"Not only in the educators that are coming into the field, but making sure that we have a very good mentoring program and a very good professional development system that insures teachers are successful throughout their career." Specht said.

She also says teachers need more help from communities and parents to find ways to close the achievement gap between white students and students of color.

Specht said the gap is a major concern for educators and teachers are working to close it.

But they won't be successful if issues affecting student performance, such as poverty, aren't first addressed. "Without those problems being addressed, we're simply going to have a problem in the classroom too." she said.

Specht said closing the gap will require teachers to work with community groups, parents and other education organizations.

Like her predecessor, she's no fan of Teach for America, the group that puts teacher trainees in the classroom while they earn a full teaching license.

Teach for America's supporters maintain the group is putting a diverse group of trainees into urban classrooms that desperately need dedicated teachers.

But Specht is concerned the five-week summer course and on the job training TFA members receive isn't enough to prepare them the for classroom.

"When you have somebody on your team that you're worried about whether they're prepared or whether they have the tools that are necessary to do well, that's a concern for everyone." Specht said.

This spring Gov. Mark Dayton vetoed $1.5 million in state funds for Teach for America, a move many say came after intense lobbying from Education Minnesota.

Last month the state Board of Teaching declined TFA's request for a batch of 45 teacher licenses, requiring teacher trainees to apply for them individually. The Board of Teaching said the move didn't target Teach for America, but rather any group that applies for a group of teacher licenses.

Another major issue Specht will need to deal with is Minnesota new teacher evaluation system.

The new system, which reviews teacher performance in part on how well their students do, will enter its pilot phase next school year, and be fully implemented statewide in the 2014-2015 school year.

Specht said she supports the system, especially if it improves the effectiveness of teachers. Her main concern however is that lawmakers haven't provided money to put the new system in place.

"The way the law exists now it's an unfunded mandate. It's a concern for school administrators, school boards and the educators that we work with." Specht said.

Specht said she'll push for lawmakers to fund the new teacher evaluation system during the next legislative session. She'll also push legislators to find money to decrease class sizes. And she plans to support a move to strengthen Minnesota's anti-bullying law, and effort that failed during the last legislative session.

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