Fluke or Future Trend: The MFT agrees to take over a charter school and (sort of) create one “partnership” school.

The case of the Minnesota School of Sciences serves as a reminder that labor negotiations can be highly stylized, staged performances—sort of like Japanese Kabuki minus the white make-up and heavy costumes.

What people say at the table is not necessarily what they end up doing. There are side discussions and post-negotiation telephone calls that we humble public observers never hear…which can result in quietly signed contracts that we only find out about weeks later.

Such was the case with the Minnesota School of Sciences, a district-authorized charter that started two years ago in district’s largely empty, modern Cityview School on the north side. The school had a rough start (as many new schools do) but by the second year, its students—who are mostly African-American and live on the north side--were allegedly doing far better than their peers in traditional district schools.

Yet this spring, the district announced it was kicking the charter school out its Cityview building for failure to pay rent plus other management problems. The district refused to let the school find a different authorizer, which essentially killed the charter. Minneapolis School of Science and its parents cried foul and have now filed suit against the district.

It was all rather odd and mysterious. The school appeared to have solved its problems and was now flourishing. It had a fantastically loyal and enthusiastic group of families supporting it. I don't understand why the district decided to kill it. But anyhow, here's how it figures into the teacher contract negotiations.

Early on in the talks, the district proposed taking over the Minnesota School of Science and making it its first “partnership” magnet school---a kind of prototype for what the Superintendent is seeking in 12-18 sites in the next couple of years. 

The district said this would allow the 300 students and their families the choice of staying in the Cityview building with supposedly the same program, just now run by the district instead of a charter board.

It would also give the MFT an irresistible opportunity to for once take over a charter school and unionize its staff. “We definitely want to do this,” Nordgren said. “We want to make it happen. “

But then came the hitches. In order to keep the school’s current 300 students and attract more kids, the district said it would have to assure families that the school would keep its science curriculum, try to hire some of its talented teachers, keep its 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. school day and an extended school year. The current teachers are expected to work a flexible 45-50 hour week.

The MFT team was slack-jawed at the prospect of the 8 to 4:30 school day.  Sara Paul, an associate superintendent, quickly explained that the actual classes were over at 3 p.m. For the last 90 minutes, the teachers either tutored or taught fun courses like knitting or sports games while other teams of teachers met to go over data or do professional development.

The MFT team was horrified. Did the teachers at this school volunteer to teach knitting? Or were they forced to do it? And exactly how often did teachers have to meet to go over data or professional development and was this required or voluntary and what kind of advance notice was required?

One teacher announced that 8 am to 4:30 pm was actually a 13-hour workday (counting showering and commuting? I couldn’t figure it out either.) Other teachers nodded, saying that no one could work an 8 to 4:30  school day and maintain a family life.

“We want to think outside the box, but not this far outside the box,” Nordgren said.  If families wanted an extended day, another vendor would have to provide it, she said. Also, an extended school year was out of the question. If families wanted that, they could sign up for some kind of summer school.

The MFT could not imagine any of their teachers working such extended schedules. Nor could it imagine agreeing to any kind of performance contract that involved student test data because in addition to staff flexibility, a partnership school has to meet accountability standards.

In short, the MFT was happy to take over this charter school…. as long as their teachers didn’t have to do most of the things that had originally attracted the families to the school in the first place.

And that's where the discussion pretty much ended.

So I was both surprised---and pleased—to find out last week that on June 26th, the MFT had quietly signed a Memorandum of Agreement to take over the charter school. The agreement includes the 8 to 4:30 p.m. work day, three extra weeks of school in June and “new program” status which allows the school to be able to hire from outside the district pool of teachers for its first three years.

So what prompted the MFT’s apparent change of heart?

Optimists say this means the union is actually open to the Superintendent’s “partnership schools” proposals and it bodes well for the upcoming negotiations.

Pessimists say the MFT simply couldn’t resist the chance to shut down a charter and will not extend any flexibility to any other schools. The union will instead hail this lone school as its huge reform while working to make sure nothing like this ever happens at any traditional district school.

Or the MFT will insist that any “partnership” schools be strictly voluntary, i.e. that a majority of the teachers at each site would have to agree to it before any alternative contracts could be signed.  As I said in a previous post, making “partnership” contracts a voluntary option would effectively kill the Superintendent’s plan because I think it's a safe bet that the MFT would urge its members to reject such contracts. The union opposes allowing principals any additional authority or freedom to pick their chosen staff as well as most of the other things in proposed alternative contract.

So was taking over the charter a fluke or future trend?

Based on how the MFT has been talking during the last month of negotiations, I’d say fluke. But Lord, I would love, love, love to be proved wrong.

Next post: What the union wants.

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As you may recall, during 2011-2013 negotiations, more than a few of us bitched mightily that district asked for almost nothing in the way of reform and received even less—despite the fact that Minneapolis had the worst achievement gap in the state and one of the worst in the country.

So the good news going into the 2013-1015 negotiations is that this time Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson is pushing for some truly bold changes. Her most ambitious proposal is to put 20-30 percent of MPS schools (i.e. 12 to 18 sites) into innovative “partnership” contracts.

Under these contracts, school leaders at each site would have the freedom to:

o    Hire and retain teachers that best fit the needs of their students and families. Build a team around a common mission, a culture of high expectations and real-time use of data to track student progress.

o    Extend the school day and/or adapt a more year-round calendar.

o    Pay their teachers higher starting salaries; give effective teachers raises more quickly.

This  “partnership” between the MFT and the district would give the district’s lowest performing schools some of flexibility that high-performing public charters in Minneapolis are using to get great results with the low-income students of color…i.e. the same demographic that is failing en masse in traditional MPS schools.

The Superintendent wants to do this kind of innovation with union teachers… .if the union will agree. You can read more about her plans here.

So far this is looking like a tough sell.  “Anything that even sounds like a charter school will be unacceptable to our members,” MFT President Lynn Nordgren breezily announced in the opening round of negotiations. 

And indeed, the district team always carefully avoids the “C” word in its proposal, probably because its mere mention makes the MFT break into hives.

Can I just say that the MFT’s reaction to any hint of reform and/or the “C” word is not the behavior of a confident, forward-thinking group of professionals. And it’s even weirder considering our current circumstances.

Almost 70 percent of MPS students are low-income students of color. Almost all are doing badly in our traditional district schools. Right now, the ONLY public schools in Minneapolis that are doing well with this demographic are…those “C” schools, i.e. public charters like Harvest Prep, Hiawatha Leadership, Friendship Academy of the Arts and others.

So it’s weird for the MFT to announce that anything that even sounds like one of these successful models is unacceptable.

Because trust me, high-performing public charters aren’t going away. Their numbers are increasing to meet a growing demand, especially from families of color. Which makes perfect sense because would you send your kid to a school where less than half of their peers were graduating on time? Especially if there was a viable public alternative? 

Public charter schools are the main reason why MPS continues to lose market share---even as the number of school-age kids in the city is increasing. Sooner or later, the union and the district will be looking at an adapt-or-die situation. Call me a sap, but our current schools were built up with a century of public investment. So if they're not working, I think it would make more sense to fix them if possible as opposed to build up an alternative parallel system of public schools.

The district, for all its faults (and trust me, the district’s faults are legion) seems to get that it needs to change.  In her speech in May, laying out her agenda, Superintendent Johnson was unusually blunt in terms of owning the problem and pushing for change. Mayor RT Rybak backs her plan as do many non-profits and community leaders. 

So far, during the 30-plus hours of negotiations that I’ve witnessed, the MFT seems to determine to resist almost all changes---to the point where it sometimes feeling like I’m watching an aging union commit slow-motion suicide---and taking metropolitan school district down with it, not to mention the futures of thousands of vulnerable children and hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars.

But then, the MFT surprises me….as it did when it appeared to suddenly reverse course and agree to take over a charter school in the district’s Cityview school building.

Next time:  Fluke or Future Trend?  The MFT agrees to shut down a charter to create one “partnership” school.

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Back at it: Negotiations 2013 and why contract reform is a progressive cause

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The Strib's editorial board weighs in on the contract with this op-ed. You can read it below or on-line here.

Despite growing pressure from parents and community groups, change continues to come slowly for Minneapolis schools and their students.

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Here's the op-ed that ran in the Strib today. You can also read it on-line here.

Another teacher's contract, another vote for the status quo.

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Yesterday explained here the context of my quote in the Strib on Sunday.

Today, Bernadeia Johnson, the superintendent of schools, sent an email to all MPS teachers regarding that same quote.  I agree with everything she says:  the majority of our teachers are doing good work. They need to be recognized and supported. And we need to keep pushing for fair, comprehensive evaluations and reform.

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Apparently, I was quoted in the Strib on Sunday saying "In Minneapolis, if you're a nice person, don't hit the kids and don't show up for work drunk, you basically have a job for life."  Which I can see sounds pretty offensive just coming from nowhere.

For what it's worth, here's the context of my quote “you have to be drunk or hit a kid…” which I also cross posted at the MPS Parents Forum.

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Hey all:

Well, it's been nearly a month since the MFT filed to close the negotiations to public observers and at this point the talks appear to be stuck. Earlier this week, I wrote a mild little op-ed in the Strib about a meeting I had with the Governor to talk about ending LIFO, which included a little tangent in which the Governor went off on Minneapolis Public Schools, calling them an abomination, a sea of dysfunction and pointed out that our school board couldn't even negotiate a decent contract.

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I had a mild little op-ed in the Strib last Tuesday that said rigid teacher seniority rules were to the DFL what gay marriage is to the GOP. Republicans can keep banging on their Bibles and thundering that marriage is between a man and a woman. But they've already lost that culture war. The public---especially those under 30--have moved on and we're not going backwards on this issue.

Ditto for last-in-first-out rules and the DFL. We can keep saying LIFO works swell, but 91 percent of Minnesotans want effectiveness rather than seniority to be the first criteria for teacher lay-offs. We've lost the culture war and the longer we keep defending this stuff, the dumber and more craven we look.

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Chris Stewart, a fellow organizer for the Contract for Student Achievement, had this piece in MinnPost today. You can either read it at this link. Or I've pasted it in below.

Two weeks later, the MFT and MPS Board are still hiding

By Chris Stewart, Minnpost, March 1, 2012

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On Valentine's Day, MFT President Lynn Nordgren closed the teacher contract negotiations to parents, citizens and media observers. So this weekend, we aren't watching what will probably be the final wrap-up talks for the 2011-2013 $240 million teachers' contract. MPS Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson opposed the MFT's move and wanted the talks to remain public.  But by law, either party can unilaterally ask for the talks to be moved behind closed doors under state mediation.

Why did the MFT want to move behind closed doors? According to the Star-Tribune, Nordgren said she was tired of being sniped at by outside observers who argued that the district isn't aggressive enough in its push for contract changes. (That would, ahem, be us.) She added that meeting in public also makes it hard for the union to control the flow of information to its own members.

Ding! Ding! Ding! We believe her second reason is the more apt one. In the past, no one covered what was actually happening inside the negotiations. The MFT and the MPS School Board would sometimes jointly issue bland and utterly contentless statements. So neither the public nor the MFT's own members knew the details of what exactly was being traded or even discussed in the talks. This made it easy for either side to blame each other for things that ended up in the final contract---when it was too late to undo the damage.

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As many of you know, we've been watching teacher contract negotiations between the Minneapolis Public Schools and the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers since early October, under the state’s Open Meeting Laws.

After spending months mostly talking in circles about issues that aren’t actually in the contract, the two sides are finally making specific offers and counter-offers. The St. Paul School Board settled with its union last week, so there’s a sense that MPS and the MFT both feel some pressure to settle soon as well.

Last Tuesday, the district negotiators, acting on behalf of our elected School Board,  presented their latest offer. Here are the highlights---along with our commentary.

From the MPS side of the table:

Our school board is requesting the following staffing reforms, but only at its 16 lowest performing schools: (Specifically: Anishinabe, Bancroft, Bethune, Broadway, Cityview, Green Central, Hall, Hmong International Academy, Lucy Laney, North, Olson, Pratt, Ramsey, Sheridan. Wellstone International High School)

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This sobering essay in Education Week, "A Tale of Two Teacher Evaluations", is about a Chicago public school teacher who joined a turnaround school in Chicago. Her principal rated her as one of the best teacher in the school her first year and then dismissed her as a trouble-maker the next year.

This is exactly the scenario that makes teachers very wary of certain principals' evaluations.

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Michael Diedrich is doing some terrific education writing over at Minnesota2020. I don't always agree with him, but he's always worth reading. Before he joined MN2020, he spent two years teaching high school English in Brooklyn Center, which is one reason why he's such a good education blogger.

Back on Oct. 11th, Diedrich posted about a Milwaukee high school that shut down its 9th and 10th grades because it couldn't find enough certified teachers, especially math and science teachers, to staff the place.

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Democrats for Education Reform just released their new report on the Washington, D.C. teacher evaluation system, which is now in its third year.  The D.C. evaluation program is called IMPACT, an acronym for God only knows what. Doesn't matter. The report was written by Barbara Martinez, a former education reporter for the Wall Street Journal, which means that it's actually pretty readable.

Martinez writes, "To critics, IMPACT is simply the evaluation system that helps fire teachers. This misses a huge point. Perhaps the biggest benefit of IMPACT is for the teachers who stay, not those who go.

"Many DC teachers report that they finally have the feedback and support they – and kids – deserve. The evidence is in the numbers: More than half of the teachers who were deemed to be “minimally effective” in IMPACT’s first year and stayed in the district improved their performance enough to earn an “effective” score in the following year.
This element of the IMPACT system can’t be emphasized enough.

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And if it feels like they just finished negotiating the 2009-2011 contract, it's because.....heck, they really did just finish negotiating the last contract only ten months ago.

Quick back story: the 2009-2011 contract was signed nearly a year after the deadline after talks between the district and the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers deadlocked and then went into lengthy arbitration. Contracts are renewed every two years, so yes, we are now only three months away from the alleged January deadline for the 2011-2013 contract. Actually, it's quite odd to be starting teacher negotiations in mid--October. In the past, district-MFT talks began in the spring. Veteran observers speculate the late start could be because:

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I don't agree with everything Rick Hess writes. But can I just add a big amen to this whole column, which give four tips on superintendent leadership

I was especially struck by Tip #2:

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........interest-based collective bargaining. The district and MFT are using interest-based collective bargaining for this round, so last night, we watched for two and a half hours as both sides put lots of vaguely-worded, neutral-sounding "issues" on the table.  This is the first stage of what is a long process. We're told the next step is to organize the issues and brainstorm options, etc.

This method is supposed to be far more collaborative, cooperative and possibly more creative than traditional "this is what my side wants" bargaining. So neither side has yet issued any specific proposals for change---after two and half hours, it was still all Uber-Vague. I'm hoping there will be more substance as they start brainstorming options and solutions, etc.

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Tennessee started implementing its new teacher evaluation plan and according to these reports here, and here and here, it's driving everyone nuts

The state's new law requires four official observations for experienced teachers, and six for apprentice teachers every year. There are extensive checklists for everything--for example, there's a three-page checklist just to go over a teacher's lesson plan. So naturally, both principals and teachers are overwhelmed by the paperwork, with principals spending hours at home finishing their observation reports and teachers spending hours writing lengthy, detailed lessons plans for the evaluation process.

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and honest to God, we still don't have a teacher's contract. It's like Waiting for Godot. It's like Waiting for Superman. It's absurd.

Beth Hawkins, Minnpost education reporter extraordinaire, posted this update last Monday:

"Despite their mutual commitment to reform, the MFT and Minneapolis Public Schools have been at an impasse in terms of negotiating a new contract for a year. Indeed, they may never ink a contract for the current cycle. A state-appointed arbiter ruled that the previous contract is still in place, there’s little reason to resume talks until next spring, when negotiations for the next cycle are supposed to begin.


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