Teaching Profession

Performance System Slow to Catch On in Minnesota

By Vaishali Honawar — January 12, 2007 6 min read

School districts in Minnesota have been slow to warm up to a state program that rewards teachers for performance rather than seniority, and educators in one district recently voted to dump it.

Gov. Tim Pawlenty wants to expand the program, which was announced in July 2005. But just 34 of the state’s 339 districts so far have joined in the Quality Compensation initiative, or Q Comp, despite the lure of additional state funds. The allocation for the 2005-2007 biennium was $86 million of which the education department expects to spend $51.4 million.

Teachers’ union officials say districts and locals are reluctant to embrace the program because it is, at this stage, swaddled in uncertainty.

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“Some legitimately worry if funding will continue. Others say that all the hoops that they are required to go through are not worth it,” said Judy Schaubach, the president of Education Minnesota, which has 70,000 members. Members of the state’s new, Democratic-majority legislature have also said they are more eager to fund financially strapped schools than to expand the Republican governor’s pet project.

Other hiccups have occurred. In the 11,000-student North St. Paul-Maplewood-Oakdale district, the plan was adopted and implemented for the 2005-06 school year. The district received $2.8 million from the state. But just weeks later, 55 percent of the teachers voted to scrap it for the 2007-08 school year.

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Despite the setbacks, state education officials paint Q Comp as a success. Besides the 34 districts and 12 charter schools participating already, more than 130 have signed letters of intent indicating they will apply for the program, said state Commissioner of Education Alice Seagren. Also, the districts that have already adopted the plan, she said, represent nearly one-fourth of the state’s 850,000 students.

Although there are a “few bumps and glitches” related to teacher anxiety about linking pay with student achievement, Ms. Seagren said, the program has overall “been working out well.” The reason districts haven’t rushed to apply, she said, is that they are taking time to explore and understand the various aspects of Q Comp.

A Controversial Plan

Under the Q Comp plan, which includes professional development, a teacher-evaluation system, performance pay, and an alternative salary schedule, individual teachers work with mentors to evaluate pedagogy and best practices, and set goals for improving student performance. They also undergo three evaluations each year.

“There are not many industries anymore that give employees an automatic pay increase just because they worked another year. That’s not the way of doing things anymore, and the public doesn’t support that anymore,” Ms. Seagren said.

Sixty percent of a teacher’s salary raise is based on such factors as the evaluations and student growth. One-time bonuses can be awarded for, among other things, schoolwide progress on student growth. Career-advancement opportunities are also available to those who wish to become mentors or lead teachers.

The plan is voluntary for districts, which generally get teachers’ union approval before proceeding. Districts that apply and are approved receive an additional $260 per student from the state.

Supporters say the plan works because it does not tie teacher pay to student test scores, but rather to students’ academic growth. “It makes more sense to teachers because you can take a student starting in a low place and show how they have improved over the year,” said Barb Kettering, the president of Minnesota’s Mounds View Education Association, whose district was one of the first to implement Q Comp in 2005.

But pay-for-performance plans have long been controversial because of concerns that they could introduce administrator favoritism into teaching.

Ben Schaefer, a program manager at the Washington-based National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future, said his group supports reform plans like Q Comp “where teachers are given time to develop and can receive compensation for their roles and responsibilities.”

However, he added, “there is always some hesitation when there is talk about changing the way you are going to pay people.” He added that teachers usually worry that they will be paid less if everyone is competing for the same pot of money.

Some union locals like the ones in Minneapolis and Denver have, in recent years, collaborated with school districts on performance-pay plans. Alaska, Florida, and Iowa all have versions in the works, despite limited evidence that such plans actually improve student gains.

The National Education Association, the largest teachers’ union, has for long refused to back any kind of merit-pay plan, with President Reg Weaver saying the money would be better spent on improving schools and across-the-board salary increases.

“I’ve always been skeptical of merit-pay plans,” said Dennis Fendt, the president of the North St. Paul-Maplewood-Oakdale Education Association, which voted to kill its Q Comp plan. “We have reservations about who’s going to make those determinations, how those determinations are going to be made, and if there is going to be an objective set of criteria they will meet.”

But, he added, his local was not opposed to the Q Comp plan put forth by their school district. Teachers, he said, were uncomfortable because they were being asked to vote on the program for the 2007-08 school year before contract negotiations begin for that year. Contract talks are scheduled to begin this summer.

Gene Janicke, the director of teaching and learning for North St. Paul, said the district would consider putting together a new proposal to gain teachers’ acceptance. The state education department, he added, has advised administrators to look at other districts’ programs for guidance.

Successes and Concerns

Commissioner Seagren said that in districts that have implemented the plan, there is already some anecdotal evidence of success. Nine Minneapolis schools employing TAP, or the Teacher Advancement Program model on which Q Comp is based, have seen increases in student scores. Created by the Milken Family Foundation, of Santa Monica, Calif., TAP includes multiple career paths for teachers, ongoing school-based professional development, evaluations tied to student performance, and performance-based compensation.

William Gibbs, the TAP coordinator for Minneapolis, said five of the nine schools have come off a state watchlist where they were placed for failing to make adequate yearly progress on state tests.

But as a new legislature begins its work, changes could loom.

State Sen. Leroy Stumpf, a Democrat who sits on the education committee, has questioned Q Comp’s benefits and has said the legislature intends to review the program this year.

Ms. Schaubach of Education Minnesota, a merged affiliate of the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, says the components of the law on Q Comp do not pose a problem. Rather, her union objects to the way the law has been interpreted by the education department. “We’ve had a lot of inconsistency,” she maintained.

The union leader cited language in the bill that calls for changing the steps-and-lanes system that pays teachers based on seniority and additional education credits earned. But the department, she said, has asked in some cases that the system be eliminated.

A version of this article appeared in the January 17, 2007 edition of Education Week as Performance System Slow to Catch On in Minnesota

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