Wednesday, December 14, 2005

COLUMN -- Teacher pay overhaul won't work

Posted by Craig Westover | 9:20 AM |  

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

I am a severe critic of Minnesota's attempt to make a transition from seniority-based teacher compensation to a "pay for performance" model not because I oppose the idea, but because the Q Comp bill passed in the Minnesota Legislature is little more than a taxpayer subsidy for vaguely defined teacher development. Q Comp plans I read justified that impression. To confirm my judgment, I ventured into the belly of the beast.

I met with Deputy Commissioner of Education Chas Anderson and Linda Trevorrow, director of the Q Comp program. I came away with a greater appreciation for the Minnesota Department of Education's task, but more convinced that despite the department's tough, intelligent approach, Q Comp won't live up to expectations. Less, not more, centralization of education is the formula for better education of all Minnesota children.

The Department of Education takes Q Comp oversight seriously. It is implementing Q Comp in keeping with Gov. Tim Pawlenty's original vision rather than a gelded program the imprecise legislation might have allowed. The department has specific criteria for accepting and rejecting Q Comp plans. Plans have been rejected.

Some school districts have not evaluated a teacher in 20 years, noted Anderson, and the Department of Education's tough-love interpretation of the Q Comp program is "creating tension" with districts. That is a good thing.

The Department of Education is enforcing the connection between "professional development" and student performance. It is recommending that no more than 50 percent of performance pay be based on teacher evaluations. Some districts went as high as 80 percent teacher evaluation with only 10 percent of performance pay based on standardized testing. One plan identified 73 individual criteria of teacher performance. "Safety and Arrangement of Furniture" in the classroom and the teacher's handwriting carried the same weight as "Knowledge of Content."

"We have to teach districts what a proper objective is," Trevorrow said. "School districts can plan to be competent or plan to efficacious. Q Comp is not about competence. It's about making teachers more effective."

The Department of Education is re-evaluating some approved plans and making adjustments. Trevorrow and staff are cutting back fluff evaluation criteria and focusing on solid instructional practices. The department is forcing on-site meetings to review individual student performance goals. It's interpreting the legislative language "reform steps and lane" to mean Q Comp must be a new pay structure, not simply a bonus program.

A year-end review of district accomplishments is integrated into the Q Comp evaluation process.

"If teachers are all getting high evaluations but students are not showing improved performance, that tells us something is wrong with the district plan," Anderson said. "Changes have to made."

In short, the Department of Education is doing everything right to make Q Comp work — which is precisely why one should question the wisdom of Q Comp specifically and increased centralization of education in general.

Q-Comp is a $79 million program — $2 million and change for some participating districts. District participation is voluntary and minimal. Only five districts were ready to take part in the first year of the program. Given general public education neglect of teacher evaluations and goal setting relative to student performance, it's going to take a lot of tax dollars and a lot of time for Q Comp to precipitate even modest increases in student performance.

Performance goals in Q Comp plans are hardly aggressive given the millions of dollars being spent. Goals have a narrow focus. In some cases, levels of student performance are determined by a need to meet No Child Left Behind requirements, not by presenting a challenge to teachers and students.

It's inescapable — Q Comp increases district accountability to the state, not to parents and children.

That is a problem inherent in a centralized education bureaucracy that the Department of Education cannot hope to solve. At best sustained oversight by the department coupled with dedicated district leadership will produce some outstanding teachers and outstanding schools. But from a systemwide perspective, Q Comp remains a lot of tax dollars supporting a lot of unchallenged mediocrity.

Former Milwaukee Superintendent of Schools Howard Fuller notes, "School choice is not the single answer to creating a world-class education system, but a world-class system will never develop without it."

Feeling that programs like Q Comp will significantly improve public education is delusional. Until all schools are challenged by families, regardless of income, seeking out the best schools for their children, we are merely feeding the beast — with our tax dollars and the futures of our children.

Category: Column, Education School Choice