Changing tenure, and how teachers are evaluated, should not be a priority

Don Heinzman

ECM Editorial Writer

Tenure for teachers in Minnesota is under attack by conservatives in the Minnesota Legislature.

Tenure, critics say, protects “bad” teachers from being fired and enables senior teachers to get the best subjects to teach.

In reality, this appears to be another step in the ladder to get rid of the teacher bargaining law—just as happened in Wisconsin.

Other bills, besides the one on changing teacher tenure, chip away at teachers’ bargaining rights under the Minnesota Public Employees Labor Relations Act. Bills introduced in the Legislature would freeze teacher salaries for two years, limit the right for teachers to strike, limit salary negotiations to the summer, set up a new five-year evaluation system and limit the amount of pay to a percentage of the per pupil state aid.

Tenure for teachers is complicated and difficult to understand for the average citizen and makes it easy to criticize in simplistic attacks.

In the main, teachers have tenure after passing a three-year probationary period, to protect them from losing their jobs from arbitrary and questionable administrative evaluations.

Under one proposal, teachers would have their contract renewed every five years, assuming bad teachers would not get their contract renewed.

The sticky question is: Who is a bad teacher? Under one bill authored by a Republican legislator, an evaluation of a teacher would be based 50 percent on test scores, which for all kinds of reasons are not reliable to measure a teacher’s performance.

Lifetime tenure may protect a few teachers who have lost their effectiveness, but critics have little evidence to show that teachers are not being discharged under the present system.

It’s a myth that teachers cannot be discharged under the present contract. A teacher can be discharged immediately for immoral conduct, insubordination or conviction of a felony, for conduct unbecoming a teacher, failure without justifiable cause to teach and for gross inefficiency.

Legislators have shown no evidence that having teachers evaluated and their contract renewed every five years will result in weeding out the so-called bad teachers.

Meanwhile, teachers already under stress as their class sizes are enlarged, would feel more stress as they realize their teaching would be under heavier scrutiny during the five-year evaluation period.

Minnesotans had no idea that teacher tenure would come under such an attack when they voted Republicans into the majorities in both houses.

There’s little evidence that Minnesotans are dissatisfied with the public education, except it is under funded by legislators who prefer to cut spending rather than raise taxes.

By all measures, Minnesota students, except for those in Minneapolis and St. Paul, have a high graduation rate, a low dropout rate, ACT test scores that lead the nation and a high percentage that goes on to college.

Changing tenure and how teachers are evaluated is a huge task that can’t be done in this session of the Legislature.  Start first by having a good evaluation instrument for teachers and proceed from there to improve the process.

Minnesotans who care about their teachers and are alarmed over attacks on them, particularly their tenure, should contact their legislators and express their concern.  If this doesn’t happen, Republican legislators will assume they have the public’s backing.

Don Heinzman, former editor of the Star News in Elk River, is an editorial writer for ECM Publishers. His blog is posted on