Minnesota’s teacher evaluation system begins first test run
Christopher Magan, Pioneer Press, September 21, 2013 – Minnesota’s students won’t be the only ones earning grades this school year.
A handful of teachers begin earning marks of their own under a new evaluation system being piloted in 17 school districts this school year.
It’s a system that is both anticipated and controversial. It’s also expected to be costly and is surrounded by questions that may not be solved before it makes a statewide debut next fall.
The 2011 state law requiring regular evaluations of teachers was passed by the Republican-led Legislature and signed by DFL Gov. Mark Dayton. Prior to its passage, a statute required reviews of new, probationary teachers, but policies for judging experienced teachers’ performance varied widely.
“What we had up to 2011 was a system that would neglect performance management of teachers for years or even decades,” said state Sen. Branden Petersen, R-Andover, who was one of the primary sponsors of the legislation when he served in the House. “If you value performance, you must have some type of accountability system.”
A GOAL OF IMPROVING TEACHING
Minnesota is not alone when it comes to requiring more accountability from teachers. Across the country, states are implementing new evaluation systems. Many come as part of new flexibility that state education leaders received under waivers to the No Child Left Behind Act that requires every student be academically proficient by 2014.
The systems have been controversial because most require part of a teacher’s evaluation be based on how their students perform academically. They’ve also produced mixed results.
Despite the bumps in the road, Timothy Daly, president of The New Teacher Project, said systems like the one Minnesota is implementing are key to improving the nation’s schools. Founded by prominent and controversial education reformer Michelle Rhee, Daly’s New York City-based group advocates for improving teacher quality.
“They are important because they improve teaching,” Daly said of evaluations. “Just because it’s difficult doesn’t mean it’s not healthy. If you are going to get better, you need someone to tell you your strengths and weaknesses.”
Denise Specht, president of the state teachers union Education Minnesota, said teachers are in favor of the new evaluation system, but they want it to be fair and meaningful. Specht worries the rush to implement the new system and a lack of dedicated funding could hurt those goals.
“I don’t know one educator who doesn’t want to improve or get better,” Specht said. “We believe in this. We want to make sure it is done well.”
To that end, the union has partnered with the Minnesota School Boards Association to provide training to teachers and administrators around the state.
“Education Minnesota supports evaluations linked to professional development, so our union has invested a tremendous amount of time and resources preparing our members for the law to begin on time and as written,” Specht said.
When evaluations become mandatory next year, school districts can create their own system or use all or part of one developed by state leaders. Evaluations will run on a three-year cycle.
The state system is complex, but measurements of teacher performance can be divided into three parts:
- Classroom work is evaluated by peers and administrators;
- Student achievement counts for 35 percent of a teacher’s score;
- And, surveys will measure how well teachers engage students in class.
The system includes peer review and coaching, and districts also will offer teachers professional development. Teachers who are not meeting expectations or who do not improve would face discipline or termination.
Although the law was passed just two years ago, DFL lawmakers modified it after winning control of the Legislature.
Their changes applied to the most controversial part of the law. Instead of using state test scores to judge teachers, district leaders can look at growth in academic ability.
Sen. Petersen says this change in the “value-added model” doesn’t bother him. He does worry there will be future attempts to delay or modify the law.
Some DFL lawmakers failed to win support earlier this year to delay teacher evaluations. Top DFL lawmakers, the governor and Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius have said they want to push ahead with implementation.
State Rep. Sondra Erickson, R-Princeton, who sits on the Education Finance and Education Policy committees, said taxpayers’ demand for more accountability from their schools would make it tough to hold up the new evaluation system.
“If they learned the Legislature danced around it,” Erickson said. “I think we could have some political fallout from that.”
Specht said union leaders are closely watching districts piloting the new evaluations and will review all recommendations education leaders suggest for improving the law. “That review may, or may not, suggest changes to the details of the law or its deadlines. We’ll withhold judgment on those recommendations until we see them,” she said.
“The struggle to comply with this new mandate without new resources has been the single biggest challenge to bringing the program into our schools,” Specht added.
HOW TO PAY FOR IT
One debate that’s sure to continue when lawmakers reconvene at the Capitol next year is how to pay for the new evaluation system. Dayton asked the Legislature for $10 million to begin statewide implementation, but the education budget he signed included just $683,000 to fund pilot programs.
The total cost of the system is still up for debate.
When the law was passed by the Republican-controlled Legislature, government researchers estimated it would take about $80 million a year to operate. Two years later, with Democrats in charge and a much more specific framework in hand, researchers put the cost of a statewide system at as much as $289 million.
That estimate includes funding for special training for evaluators, data management and giving teachers time outside their classrooms to review others and learn from their peers.
For Specht, a big price tag with a lack of dedicated funding is worrisome. It means districts will have to make tough choices about how they will pay for it.
“The funding piece is a big deal,” she said. “It comes down to the cost and complexity of doing something well.”
But Republicans who worked on the initial bill say districts should be able to evaluate teachers with the resources they receive now. Many of the requirements in the new law are things districts should be doing already.
“I think it is somewhat ridiculous anytime you ask a school system to be accountable for something they should already be doing you need to appropriate more money,” Petersen said.
A growing number of school districts are turning to the state’s Quality Compensation program for funds they can use to help implement a broader system of evaluating teachers. Participation in Q-Comp has grown dramatically since the evaluation law was approved, and last year about one-third of Minnesota’s districts participated.
This fall, teacher union leaders in Minneapolis agreed to join the system, while St. Paul union leaders rejected the district’s request to sign on.
The program was created to provide districts with more state aid and local tax authority to reward their best teachers. Last fiscal year, $76 million in state and local funds were spent on the program.
But Q-Comp has morphed from a bonus system into one that funds extra training and rewards teachers who participate.
A Pioneer Press analysis in March found 99 percent of the more than 10,000 metro teachers who participated in Q-Comp got a bonus.
Greg Keith, state department of education director of school support, said Q-Comp and the new evaluation system have a lot of overlap. Districts with existing Q-Comp programs will have a “leg up” when it comes to crafting evaluation systems.
“It would be an understatement to say they are complementary,” Keith said.
Yet Q-Comp funding is set to run out, and it is unclear how the program would co-exist with the new teacher evaluations.
No large metro school districts are participating in this year’s test run of the state’s evaluation system. Perpich Center for Arts Education, which runs an Arts High School and recently took over Crosswinds East Metro Arts & Science School in Woodbury, is the only metro district piloting the state’s full evaluation model.
In contrast, Prior Lake-Savage schools are piloting part of the system that measures student performance with seven reading specialists.
Carlondrea Hines, principal of Perpich schools, said they participated so they could learn more about on how teachers using arts-based curriculum will be judged.
Teachers generally support the program, Hines said, but they still have a lot of questions. Their biggest worry is how student achievement and engagement will be judged, especially as assessments and standards continue to change.
“To me, there are too many unknowns,” Hines said, noting they just began the pilot program. “If some of those questions were answered I’d feel more comfortable.”
Similar concerns are coming up in Mahtomedi, where Rob Pontious, the district Q-Comp coordinator and a vocal music teacher, is working to help develop the district’s evaluation system. Pontious recently attended a training session held by Education Minnesota.
He supports the move to using students’ academic growth rather than proficiency on an achievement test. Teachers face different challenges at each school and with each student, he said.
“You can’t ignore the outside forces,” Pontious said. “It’s like holding your dentist responsible for the number of cavities you have.”
WORK IN PROGRESS
The myriad of questions and challenges surrounding teacher evaluations has nearly everyone involved agreeing the system that’s rolled out in September 2014 won’t be perfect. Supporters hope that won’t be an excuse to make the system less rigorous.
“I think we’ll get a good start,” said Keith, from the education department. “I think the ideal would be to pilot something and refine it over a couple years. We don’t have time for that.”
For Daly, the national education reform advocate, a deadline is a good thing.
“There’s only so much you can do before you begin to implement,” Daly said. “It’s much smarter to improve as you go then to lock yourself in the design lab for years.”