Response to ‘The necessity of teachers’ unions’

In a Feb. 3 column, Ronald Dixon shared his thoughts on the necessity of teachers’ unions — defending the nearly 3,000 Anoka-Hennepin district teachers who, frustrated with ongoing contract negotiations, have vowed to stop all after-hours work.

I thank Dixon for opening up a dialogue on the importance of teachers. Research and intuition tells us that teachers are the No. 1 in-school factor for student success.

As a former, non-unionized public school teacher, I appreciate how hard teachers’ unions work to ensure that educators receive the respect and compensation that they deserve.

If, however, student achievement is the shared goal of Minnesota teachers, parents, community leaders and policymakers — and I trust that it is — I’d like to keep this conversation moving forward.

As “employees who deserve fair treatment,” teachers should receive reliable evaluations that provide them with meaningful feedback on their work and lead to professional development opportunities. Last fall, we toured 28 schools across Minnesota that are already using professional evaluations to change the odds for their students and help teachers improve. This fall, teacher evaluations will roll out across all of Minnesota. If implemented with fidelity and collaboration, they present an opportunity to further effective teaching and increase student learning. Let’s all work together to make sure that happens.

I agree with Dixon that “teachers’ unions are necessary to retain high-quality teachers,” as they advocate for fair compensation and treatment, which help attract talented individuals to the profession. But unfortunately, unions too often value teacher seniority over performance. If we want to recruit and retain the most effective teachers, then layoff and tenure decisions should look to student achievement as the primary factor. The majority of district teachers agree with such a move. In a statewide poll MinnCAN conducted last year, 82.6 percent of surveyed public school teachers said that teacher effectiveness should play a role in determining whether a teacher receives tenure. Let’s listen to teachers and implement policy that reflects their vision.

“In contemporary society, the fault of failed children lies with teachers,” Dixon writes, suggesting that teachers too often receive all the blame for a systemically broken public education system. I believe this generalization is unfair and that Americans — and especially Minnesotans — increasingly look to teachers as their most trusted source of all things education-related. This is evidenced in part by Minnesota’s historic investments in public schools last year, when the state Legislature increased education spending by $485 million. With this investment, Minnesotans placed their trust — and tax dollars — in public schools and teachers.

Still, there are significant steps that teachers can take to further advance their profession and gain even more credibility in their communities. Educators should, for example, rally behind efforts to increase diversity in their field; as research has consistently shown that students of color are more successful when taught by teachers of color. It’s therefore a serious problem that, according to the Minnesota Department of Education, minority students make up 36 percent of metro-area public school enrollment, yet 94 percent of metro teachers are white.

The research also shows that teacher diversity is irrelevant if teachers aren’t effective in the classroom. The National Council on Teacher Quality found that only four of Minnesota’s 26 teacher preparation programs are high-quality. These facts should motivate us to examine and improve the programs that train our state’s educators. If efforts to strengthen such programs — as well as initiatives to increase diversity in the teaching force — are to be successful, they must include the input and support of teachers’ unions.

Dixon opened up this conversation, and it’s now up to us to keep it moving forward. All of us — teachers, parents, students, administrators, legislators and community members — must collaborate to develop and implement strategies that will elevate teachers, teachers’ unions and — most importantly — student achievement.