School & District Management

Minnesota Governor Targets Teacher Quality

By Vaishali Honawar — October 07, 2008 5 min read
Gov. Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota boards a jet Sept. 23, as he travels the state to announce new education initiatives.
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An ambitious school improvement plan outlined by Gov. Tim Pawlenty would concentrate heavily on teacher quality in Minnesota schools, including a requirement that all districts tie annual teacher pay increases to student performance, and a mandate for tighter admission standards for teacher education programs.

The Republican governor also wants to bring midcareer professionals from other fields into teaching, especially in the shortage areas of mathematics and science, and to introduce an intensive intervention program aimed at 8th graders not yet proficient in reading or math on state tests.

The plan, which is being called the Teaching Transformation Act, is expected to crystallize into legislation over the next month. It will need the approval of the Democratic-controlled legislature, which meets again in January, to become law.

Gov. Pawlenty is one of a handful of governors around the nation pressing forward on wide-ranging education improvement efforts despite the tough economic climate. Already, some Minnesota lawmakers have suggested the state may not have the money to carry the plan through.

But state Commissioner of Education Alice Seagren, who was appointed by Mr. Pawlenty, said the governor believes a radical change is needed to boost teacher quality in the state.

“The governor is concerned that if we don’t fundamentally change and get things right, we won’t see the academic success we need to see to help our students become successful citizens,” Ms. Seagren said in an interview last week.

However, Tom Dooher, the president of the 70,000-member Education Minnesota, the state teachers’ union, called the plan “window dressing” to divert attention from more pressing issues, including large class sizes and a lack of up-to-date materials in schools.

“It doesn’t make sense to me why he would try to do this. It’s a distraction from our real concern here, which is funding,” said Mr. Dooher, whose union is a merged affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association.

He said that school districts in the state are seeing “tremendous shortfalls. ... They are cutting core curriculum ideas and programs. The state has not kept up its responsibility for funding schools.”

Performance-Pay Wrinkle

The teacher-pay proposal would require all districts not covered by the state’s current performance-pay program, called Q Comp, to link pay increases to growth in student performance.

Because pay increases are now written into negotiated contracts between local districts and teachers’ unions, Gov. Pawlenty’s proposal would require a change to the state’s Public Employment Labor Relations Act, which sets the rules for collective bargaining, Ms. Seagren said.

“It is pretty bold,” she added of the proposed change.

Under the proposal, districts would use a so-called growth model to calculate whether or not teachers had improved their students’ academic achievement.

Mr. Dooher said that the union would oppose a mandatory plan.

“Anything that’s going to be part of an alternative compensation package has to be negotiated,” he said.

Mr. Dooher said his organization supports Q Comp because it is voluntary and focuses strongly on professional development.

Under Q Comp, districts come up with their own proposals for performance-pay criteria that are a mix of professional-development elements, peer evaluation of teachers, and student performance. The student-performance element, Ms. Seagren said, ranges from as low as 10 percent in some districts to 50 percent in others. The specific compensation teachers are eligible to receive varies considerably from district to district.

But Q Comp has not been widely embraced by districts. Only 41 of the state’s 339 school districts and 22 of 159 charter schools are enrolled in it, although state officials say the participating districts represent 30 percent of total student enrollment. (“Performance System Slow to Catch On in Minnesota,” Jan. 17, 2007.)

Influential lawmakers have signaled that they, too, would prefer to continue only with Q Comp.

“An across-the-board mandate would be premature,” said Sen. Charles W. Wiger, the chairman of the Senate education committee.

Both Mr. Wiger and his fellow Democrat Rep. Carlos Mariani, who heads the House education committee, said they also were doubtful about whether the state would have enough money to implement Mr. Pawlenty’s proposals. Although they don’t yet have a price tag, they would cost millions of dollars.

Rep. Mariani said that he believes an expected shortfall in the state budget could be magnified by the uncertain economic climate. The National Conference of State Legislatures predicted in June that the shortfall for Minnesota would be $935 million, or nearly 4.5 percent of the state’s fiscal 2009 budget.

Some estimate the deficit could be even higher—”a billion or two. ... That’s what people are whispering in the hallway,” Mr. Mariani said last week.

Gov. Pawlenty’s proposal also calls for setting a common set of tougher requirements for candidates seeking admission to teacher-preparation programs. In addition, the teacher-certification test the state uses, the Praxis I, would be strengthened, and cutoff scores raised to better screen teachers looking for jobs in a district.

“We have some of the lowest cut scores on Praxis I and it is unacceptable,” Ms. Seagren said of the nationally used test, which is produced by the ETS.

Stiffer Standards

Teacher programs would also be required to tighten standards on content, technology, and instructional strategies.

The plan also calls for more-rigorous training for principals and for greater authority for school leaders in hiring and other personnel decisions.

Gov. Pawlenty is also making a push to attract more math and science teachers with a proposed program that would recruit midcareer professionals from those fields. The program, Ms. Seagren said, would be modeled along the lines of the Teaching Fellows program in New York City, which focuses on recruiting math and science teachers for high-need schools.

The teachers’ union supports one proposed change: modernizing professional development for teachers through continuous training, performance feedback on evaluations, and teacher collaboration to better use data to improve student achievement.

A version of this article appeared in the October 08, 2008 edition of Education Week as Minnesota Governor Targets Teacher Quality

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