Wednesday, August 03, 2005

READER RESPONSE -- Commissioner Seagren calls "Q-Comp" "real reform"

Posted by Craig Westover | 3:51 PM |  

Seems like this humble columnist has once again done a disservice to readers of the Pioneer Press by pointing out that things are not as the state would like us to believe they are. In Tuesday’s Pioneer Press, Commissioner of Education Alice Seagren takes exception to my column contending that what she refers to as Q-Comp is not really education reform. The commissioner I hope is aware that “Q-Comp” is a name that is not used any longer in the revised legislation that passed as part of the omnibus education bill during the special session -- it is now referred to as “Alternative Teacher Professional Pay” with no reference to “Q” for “Quality.”

Nonetheless, she writes --
A recent column by Craig Westover, "New teacher pay scheme is a far cry from reform," does great disservice to those seeking to learn more about the recently passed Q Comp legislation. Westover declares districts adopting Q Comp have the "option" to measure student achievement, which is simply untrue. Districts must use standardized tests to measure student gains.

The claim that the "steps and lanes" teacher pay system can be retained is also incorrect. Districts must reform and refocus teacher pay around student achievement, professional development and multiple career paths.

Most astonishing is the statement that Q Comp "puts process (improving skills) ahead of results (student learning)." Children do not learn in a vacuum, they learn from others — first and most importantly their parents, and secondly from their teacher. Giving teachers the opportunity to improve their classroom skills will be instrumental in raising student learning and achievement.

Q Comp is real reform that can work for Minnesota. I look forward to the task and hope that all Minnesotans can get behind this exciting new plan.
So, the commissioner basically questions two statements of fact and a conclusion from my column. Well, let’s take a look at the exact additions and (deletions) of the pay plan itself. From the omnibus education bill passed in the special session --
80.9 (a) To participate in this program, a school district,
80.10 intermediate school district, school site, or charter school
80.11 must have an educational improvement plan (as described in) under
80.12 section 122A.413 and an alternative teacher professional pay
80.13 system (as described in) agreement under paragraph (b). A charter
80.14 school participant also must comply with subdivision 2a.
80.15 (b) The alternative teacher professional pay
80.16 system agreement must:
80.17 (1) describe (the conditions necessary for) how teachers can
80.18 achieve career advancement and additional compensation;
80.19 (2) describe how the school district, intermediate school
80.20 district, school site, or charter school will provide teachers
80.21 with career advancement options (for teachers retaining) that
80.22 allow teachers to retain primary roles in student
80.23 instruction and facilitate site-focused professional development
80.24 that helps other teachers improve their skills;
Let’s pause here. Student achievement is mentioned later, and is a stated purpose of the legislation along with teacher development, but this is the heart of the legislation. What do we read about? We read what the school will do for teachers and how teachers will be provided the means to advance their careers. Note that requirement that schools describe “the conditions necessary for” additional teacher compensation -- in other words, providing teachers with objectives to be met, putting responsibility on the teachers to meet those objectives -- was modified to make it the district’s responsibility to both describe and provide career advancement options. In other words, it is the responsibility of the district to ensure there are career options and provide teachers the means to achieve them. Where is student achievement?
80.25 (3) (use a professional pay system that replaces the step
80.26 and lane salary schedule and is not based on years of service;
80.27 (4) encourage teachers' continuous improvement in content
80.28 knowledge, pedagogy, and use of best practices; and
80.29 (5) implement an objective evaluation system, including
80.30 classroom observation, that is aligned with the district's or
80.31 the site's educational improvement plan as described in section
80.32 122A.413.) reform the "steps and lanes" salary schedule, prevent
80.33 any teacher's compensation paid before implementing the pay
80.34 system from being reduced as a result of participating in this
80.35 system, and base at least 60 percent of any compensation
80.36 increase on teacher performance using:
This section addresses Seagren’s comments on “steps and lanes.” Note that all reference to “replacing” steps and lanes is deleted and replaced by language “reforming” steps and lanes. As a result of “pay for performance,” no teacher’s salary (which is based on steps and lanes)will be reduced.

The 60 percent figure is interesting -- if 60 percent of any compensation increase is based on teacher performance, what is the other 40 percent based on if not “steps and lanes” criteria? Further, note that increased competition is based on “teacher performance” and not student achievement. This becomes relevant when picking up the bill language for the following three criteria for additional compensation.
81.1 (i) schoolwide student achievement gains under section
81.2 120B.35 or locally selected standardized assessment outcomes, or
81.3 both;
I’ll give Seagren the benefit of the doubt here when she takes exception to my use of the word “optional” to describe the role of student achievement in the compensation scheme. What is optional, as I wrote, is objective test scores. Read the bill language carefully.

The first phrase references “schoolwide” achievement on state standardized tests. How does that relate to individual teacher performance? Note that regardless of the answer to that question, that phrase is followed by the word “or” and the phrase “locally selected standardized assessment outcomes.” The “or” means districts need not use state standards but may develop their own standards for measuring “teacher performance.” Further note that elsewhere in the bill it states a teacher performance plan must be developed in conjunction with the sole bargaining unit -- so, as I wrote, you have those to be evaluated developing the objectives by which they will be evaluated. How do you collectively bargain student achievement for the benefit of the student not the teacher?

Criterion #2
81.4 (ii) measures of student achievement; and
Here is the one mention in the section of the bill that describes pay for performance that references “measures of student achievement.” Does one see any definition or reference to what those measures might be? There is none other than the vague local assessment outcomes mentioned above. In other words, the state is turning money over to a district to develop a plan ostensibly to reward teachers for student achievement with no definitive measure of “student achievement.” A rather strange concept considering opponents of the Hann/Buesgens access grant bill nit-picked it to death on the grounds that private schools were not held to enough accountability.

It does not get better with the addition of criterion #3.
81.5 (iii) an objective evaluation program that includes:
81.6 (A) individual teacher evaluations aligned with the
81.7 educational improvement plan under section 122A.413 and the
81.8 staff development plan under section 122A.60; and
81.9 (B) objective evaluations using multiple criteria conducted
81.10 by a locally selected and periodically trained evaluation team
81.11 that understands teaching and learning;
This vagueness of this criterion makes the first two criteria look positively concrete. Simply throwing the word “objective” into a paragraph describing totally subjective criteria does not create a measurable standard. This is nothing but a catch-all criterion -- remember that 60 percent number?

Sixty-percent of a teacher's additional compensation must be based on the three criteria listed above, but there is no preferential weighting given to the criterion. Thus, 80 percent of the 60 percent could be based on Criterion #3 and 15 percent on school-wide achievement and 5 percent on some undefined measure of “student achievement.” Or a teacher could have the entire 60 percent of a compensation increase based on Criterion #3 -- whatever that is -- based on union participation and agreement. Is it any wonder Education Minnesota, which screams bloody murder at the mention of “merit pay,” is not objecting to this legislation?

In case you’ve lost your way in the numbering scheme of the legislation, (4), (5) and (6) below are additional elements required of a district plan. Especially interesting in a “merit” pay system is (6), the requirement that a program to reward the “best” teachers be non-competitive. I guess that is certainly a “reform” of the notion of competition.
81.12 (4) provide integrated ongoing site-based professional
81.13 development activities to improve instructional skills and
81.14 learning that are aligned with student needs under section
81.15 122A.413, consistent with the staff development plan under
81.16 section 122A.60 and led during the school day by trained teacher
81.17 leaders such as master or mentor teachers;
81.18 (5) allow any teacher in a participating school district,
81.19 intermediate school district, school site, or charter school
81.20 that implements an alternative pay system to participate in that
81.21 system without any quota or other limit; and
81.22 (6) encourage collaboration rather than competition among
81.23 teachers.
Finally, Seagren takes exception to my conclusion about the emphasis of the legislation, writing --
Most astonishing is the statement that Q Comp "puts process (improving skills) ahead of results (student learning)." Children do not learn in a vacuum, they learn from others — first and most importantly their parents, and secondly from their teacher. Giving teachers the opportunity to improve their classroom skills will be instrumental in raising student learning and achievement.
I submit that it is more astonishing that a commissioner of education does not recognize that improving teacher skills, while certainly a worthy pursuit, is a long-term effort. It first requires that the right skills be targeted (not defined in the legislation), then that course work be planned, courses taken and skills learned, skills practiced and refined through use before students will receive any significant benefit.

Given the extent of the achievement gap and the unacceptable completion rates in St. Paul and Minneapolis public schools, how is at best a two to three-year problematic approach better than providing “meaningful school choice” for low-income families starting next year? How is it more accountable to throw $78 million additional dollars into the education pot than to target 2.2 million directly to specific parents to send their children to acredited private schools with the stipulation that they be tested according to state standards?

If this legislation is, as the commissioner contends, “real reform,” then what is it that has been reformed?

No teacher’s salary can be reduced by the program, so there is no change in the “steps and lanes” criteria for those teachers. Nor is there a change in the steps and lanes system if a district opts not to apply for alternative pay funds. It’s probable that the majority of teacher compensation will be paid under the steps and lane criteria. No reform there.

A pool of money has been designated to provide additional compensation for teachers, but only in a collaborative environment and in a manner agreed to by the union -- not all that different than collective bargaining. Is that the reform?

The criteria for additional compensation is so vague, it can hardly be called reform.

And finally, the real question -- is this plan going to attract the best and the brightest into the teaching profession? Is it going to retain the best and the brightest?

The price tag on this program is $78 million; could anyone in the business world submit this bill to their company management and ask for $78 million to implement it and not get laughed out of the office, if not justly removed from any budgetary activity. Even “Dilbert management” would balk at this vague a plan with a $78 million price tag.

Seagren is right in one sense -- this is a plan that Minnesotans should get excited about. Excited and damned upset. To pass it off as reform taxes credibility more than a “health impact fee.”

UPDATE: In a blindling glimpse of the obvious, I noticed that in pasting this post into Blogger the strkie through and underline is lost. I have made additions to the bill in boldface and put (parenthesis) around deletions from the orignal House bill. What jumps out from this exercise is that the heart of the bill -- the performance teachers will be compensated additionally for -- was virtually totally rewritten from the original House version, virtually gutting the Q-Comp concept of pay for perfromance.