Teachers have choice, too—and are using it in Minneapolis

July 7, 2010 •

Bob Wedl, partner with Education|Evolving, was involved with the passage of Minnesota’s new Site-Governed Schools (SGS) law that allows districts to create schools with autonomy similar to chartered schools in that state. He also helped teachers in Minneapolis to bring forth the first proposal under the new law, last year.

Bob Wedl is a guest contributor this week to Education Innovating.

What is so encouraging about the SGS law is that its impetus was led by Lynn Nordgren, President of the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers, and the legislator that carried the bill was Rep. John Benson, a retired teacher union representative.

Why are teacher unions leading this effort? Both Nordgren and Benson suggest it is a teacher professional issue. For too long, teachers have been dictated to as to the kinds of schools the district will have (mostly all the same model), curriculum, measurement models, etc. In this environment, teachers have little say about how to teach the students they work with yet they are the ones held accountable for learning.

Nordgren goes even further. She suggests that teachers are willing to accept significant accountability for student performance if they are given the autonomy to design the schools and the flexibility to implement what needs to be done. The new Minnesota law does all three, exchanging autonomy and flexibility in exchange for accountability.

Over the summer teams of six potential schools worked to develop full applications. By the end of the development process three determined that they would continue to work over the 2009-10 year and submit in the next round. Two teams decided not to pursue the SGS model, and one SGS team developing a French Immersion School completed an excellent proposal.

But the district board was having second thoughts about this model and continued to postpone its decision. The teachers union wants to move more aggressively with teacher leadership of schools than does either the board or district administration. Although the board did finally approve the French Immersion school in March 2010, because of the delays the school elected to delay opening until September 2011.

The teachers that developed applications say this is the best professional development experience they have ever had. They could clearly see that their status as professionals was being lifted up. What was especially interesting was that, with the potential for real accountability, these teachers were willing to do work (with limited or no pay) they would likely not have agreed to do had they been directed to do so by the administration.

The cat is out of the bag in Minneapolis and it isn’t going back in if the union leadership has anything to say about it—and she does! Nordgren has made it perfectly clear to the district board that if teacher-run schools are not given a chance, she will begin a teacher union-led chartering effort. Teachers have “choice” too!

Meanwhile other districts are beginning to move for SGS such as Staples-Motley, St. Paul, Rochester and a few others. With the strong support of the Staples-Motley Board and Superintendent Mark Schmitz, district teachers developed two excellent new school models using chartering as the tool to begin these new schools. Across the river, the St. Paul teachers included a commitment to design a site-governed schools development process in their new contract.