Wednesday, July 20, 2005

COLUMN -- New teacher pay scheme is a far cry from reform

Posted by Craig Westover | 10:59 AM |  

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Minnesotans confused, frustrated and properly insulted by word play that spawned a "health impact fee" on cigarettes, prepare yourself for more Orwellian sleight of tongue. The "performance pay for teachers" — or Q-Comp, as it is known — included in the omnibus education bill (HF 141) is as much of an "education reform" as a health impact fee is a way of increasing state revenue without raising taxes. Moreover, the legislation is not effective policy.

The newly renamed "Alternative Teacher Professional Pay System" is little more than a $78 million taxpayer subsidy for vaguely defined teacher development.

Its stated objective is to "provide incentives to encourage teachers to improve their knowledge and instructional skills in order to improve student learning."
Q-Comp was a "restructured teacher compensation system" (original language) not an "alternative" pay system.

Folks, we did not get a restructured compensation system. We did not get a merit pay system based on student achievement. We did not get education reform. We got a career advancement subsidy that puts process (improving skills) ahead of results (student learning). The only criterion of student performance — standardized state tests — is optional.

Struck from the Q-Comp bill is all language about "replacing" the existing "steps and lanes" system that pays teachers based on a combination of longevity and continuing education. The new language talks about "reform" of steps and lanes and ensuring that no teacher's compensation will be reduced, regardless of performance. True, if a district implements the alternative pay system, at least 60 percent of any increase in compensation will be based on teacher performance. But there's a catch.

Written into the legislation, teacher performance can be measured by student achievement on statewide standardized tests or locally selected standardized assessment outcomes including undefined measures of student achievement (think Profile of Learning-like portfolios). Teachers can be evaluated using "multiple criteria" selected by a trained evaluation team that "understands teaching and learning."

Further, all performance criteria must be developed with "substantial participation by the exclusive representative of the teachers," that is the union. In non-union charter schools, 70 percent of the teachers must approve any plan — the seed of unionization.

In other words, "teacher performance" means whatever the teachers union agrees that it means. Making testable student achievement optional obscures any meaningful objective standards of teacher performance. Is it any wonder Education Minnesota, which becomes apoplectic at the mention of merit pay for teachers, has been stunningly restrained on this legislation?

The "Professional Pay System" was negotiated outside the Education Working Group in closed-door session among Gov. Tim Pawlenty, Commissioner of Education Alice Seagren, Senate Education Policy Chairman Steve Kelley, D-Hopkins, and House Education Finance Chairwoman Barb Sykora, R-Excelsior.

Notable by his exclusion was House Education Policy and Reform Chairman Mark Buesgens, R-Jordan, one of the most reform-minded members of the working group, a frequent and effective counter to Kelly's protectiveness of system status quo, and co-author of the "meaningful school choice" legislation that was one of Pawlenty's big four proposals in return for the cigarette tax.

Neither Buesgens nor the co-sponsor of the school choice legislation, Sen. David Hann, R-Eden Prairie, had discussions with the governor about school choice legislation during the special session. Nor, they say, did the governor's staff return their phone calls. Meaningful school choice, it appears, was never a meaningful option. When push came to shove, it was children who were pushed aside to shove more compensation to adults for improving their resumés.

Compared to the (at least) two-year planning and implementation cycle before students receive any benefit from their newly "developed" teachers, meaningful school choice would have had an immediate impact on children and the state budget. According to the fiscal note prepared by the state, the Hann/Buesgens legislation would have cost the state an additional $2 million in 2006 and returned a net savings to the general fund of more than $8 million in 2007 (compared to the $78 million cost of the Alternative Pay System).

"Government can't fix the system. That's a silly concept," Buesgens said. "Markets and people make education decisions."

He's right. Merit pay is reward for performance set by whom one serves, not self-determined, vague criteria with no objective reality. Parental school choice — the ability to opt out of the system if dissatisfied — creates a very objective reality.

"We squandered a lot of money," Buesgens said. "And we didn't get any reform."

Like playing word games with the cigarette tax, to claim so is neither honest nor honorable.