Chris Stewart & Charlie Weaver: The most important thing our students need: Effective teachers

Minnesota’s 2009 Teacher of the Year almost never was.

Following her first year of teaching she was laid off from a school in Minneapolis. Fortunately, she stuck with teaching, found another job and eight years later was chosen from more than a hundred nominees to earn the award. With half of all new teachers leaving the profession in the first five years, it is truly to her credit that she persevered after an early setback in her career.

Minnesota’s 1990 Teacher of the Year won the award after having been laid off a few months prior. The reason, said the school principal: “What happened was obvious. Last hired is the first fired.”

Both of these examples, nearly twenty years apart, underscore the need to reform a pernicious state law that prohibits school districts from keeping their best teachers in the classroom.

This law, known as LIFO (“Last in, First out”), is an antiquated employment practice that forces Minnesota school districts to make teacher lay-offs based solely on seniority, not effectiveness. This has to change.

We know that teacher quality is the single most important in-school factor that determines student success. We also know that two consecutive years of poor instruction sets kids on a negative trajectory from which they almost never recover. Yet every year and in every part of the state, we subject our state’s more precious resource – our children – to a system that doesn’t put their best interests first.

That seniority – not quality – is the strongest factor that school districts consider when they are forced to make lay-offs may come as a surprise to some. But to those of us who are worried that Minnesota’s students are falling behind an increasingly competitive world, we see LIFO as an obstacle to schools capable of producing high academic achievement.

Parents want teachers that help their kids achieve. We doubt they care if the best teacher for their child has been teaching for two years or 20. What every parent wants for their child is the best education possible, regardless of what school they attend.

That’s why we think parents intuitively know what a study by the New Teacher Project recently found: that students who have had an ineffective teacher make 2.5 – 3.5 months less progress in a school year than students who have had even an average teacher.

Even more troubling is that our current system of seniority-based layoffs disproportionately affects schools with large populations of low-income students and students of color because those schools tend to employ more new teachers. A study even revealed that quality-blind, seniority-based layoffs results in 25% more layoffs in the poorest schools than the wealthiest ones.

The fact that Minnesota has one of the largest achievement gaps between African-American and white students is well known and needs to be addressed. But we shouldn’t have state laws that make it more difficult to do so.

The most important thing our students need to succeed in school is a great teacher in every classroom. Ending LIFO and giving school districts more control to do just that, is the most important education reform we can pass this year.

How many more future teachers of the year will we lose simply because they were the last one in? Last week, the House or Representatives said no more. A recent survey found that an overwhelming majority of Minnesotans have said no more.

Let’s hope Gov. Dayton does the same.

Chris Stewart is co-chair of the African American Leadership Forum’s education workgroup, and a former member of the Minneapolis Board of Education.

Charlie Weaver is the executive director of the Minnesota Business Partnership, which represents more than 100 CEOs from Minnesota’s largest employers.