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Q-Comp 2.0: a creative proposal to drive teacher quality

REUTERS/Sergio Perez
Although it was anchored in the minds of the public as merit pay, Q-comp funds actually have always been earmarked for five uses — performance pay and alternative compensation are just two.

If you think about the ongoing contract talks between Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS) and its teachers union, there’s a good chance you think of logjams and acrimony. Or of the contract’s inexplicable capacity for getting longer and longer without making anyone truly happy.

If you think about Q-Comp at all, you probably think of it as merit pay, a controversial idea. Or worse, of merit pay that, in Minneapolis, wasn’t completely paid to teachers until the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers (MFT) grieved the issue.

Provided MFT members vote by Oct. 1 to approve a novel agreement with the district, you may want to get used to thinking of it as Q-Comp 2.0, a creative proposal to drive teacher quality — a topic policymakers hereabouts are much better at touting than at paying for. It’s not a part of the master contract or a side agreement, but it has the potential to contribute to the district’s strategic plans for closing the achievement gap.

The Minneapolis School Board and the Minnesota Department of Education have already approved the plan, which will steer $9.17 million — the first installment of an ongoing annual grant — into district coffers. A whopping $3 a head will be distributed as merit pay. The rest will be used to pay for a comprehensive system of assessment and professional development that the district and the union have built collaboratively over the last couple of years.

Process is focused on improvement

The money is important, but the real victory may lie in the thinking behind the agreement. Last year for the first time every MPS teacher was observed, evaluated and provided — privately — with data about their students’ performance and growth. Backing up the assertion that the process is not geared toward punishing underperformers is critical.

“We are really focused on helping all teachers get better,” said Paul Hegre, a Minneapolis teacher on special assignment who helped craft the proposal. “Some other places are concentrating on those who aren’t.”

The money can be used for an array of things. It can be used to pay reserve teachers to take over a classroom so a master teacher can spend time observing someone else on the job. It can pay for instructional coaches to work with teachers in a particular school or grade level on developing new strategies for teaching a particular subject.

The funds can be tapped to make sure evaluators are well trained and that there are enough of them; every teacher now participates in four observations every year. It can pay for time spent planning as teams. There are some one-time stipends for teachers who have been doing this work but have had no compensation, as well as for a full-time educational equity trainer.

One huge possibility: It can pay for time for educational support staff who work with special-ed students and in other high-need settings to plan with the teachers who lead their classrooms. “Right now they arrive with the kids and leave with the kids and when teachers are prepping they are with the kids,” said Hegre.

Schools may use their funds on their priorities, he added. “One of the bonuses of having a program like this is we can identify individual needs and trends,” said Hegre. “It’s not a one-size-fits-all professional development model anymore.”

If it works. A 2009 Legislative Auditor’s report said there’s no way of knowing whether the then-4-year-old pay for performance plan was having any effect on achievement by Minnesota students.

Evaluations were sporadic

At the time, few Minnesota teachers were evaluated on even a sporadic basis, and student achievement data was too crudely reported to provide meaningful feedback. There were few ways of knowing what continuing education was needed in which classroom or school. And teacher raises were typically tied to years of experience or new academic credentials.

Plus, teachers found the idea that a bonus would improve their practice insulting. And the idea that an administrator would be dropping in unannounced to watch them teach? That was usually a sign a teacher was in danger of being disciplined or fired.

Finally, it turned out to be a bad idea all around to hand out raises in the form of contractually guaranteed step and lane increases and expect to pay for them using fluctuating funds that had to be appropriated by the Legislature.

After Minneapolis teachers waited more than two years to be paid millions for work done under Q-Comp in the 2008-2009 school year, the MFT filed a grievance and won. Because former Gov. Tim Pawlenty never fully funded the program, which he touted as a marquee achievement, the district ate the difference.

Minneapolis, meanwhile, was quietly working on creating systems for analyzing student performance data and for evaluating teachers and other staff. The idea being not to ferret out bad teachers so much as generate feedback to help every single one continue to improve. Classrooms where outsized gains were being made could be identified and the teachers in them tapped as resources for others.

Two years ago, while Minneapolis was piloting its system, the Legislature passed a law mandating statewide teacher evaluations beginning in the 2014-2015 school year. It did not, however, appropriate any money to pay the estimated $80 million-$100 million cost.

Earmarked for five uses

Enter Q-Comp. Although it was anchored in the minds of the public as merit pay, the funds actually have always been earmarked for five uses. Performance pay and alternative compensation — allowing teachers to progress on salary schedules by doing things other than earn new academic credentials — are just two.

The others are to pay for teacher observation and evaluation, to create career “ladders” and other leadership opportunities for teachers and to provide “job embedded” professional development. In contrast to, say, a one-time workshop or class, job-embedded development is training and feedback provided to an individual teacher in the classroom by, say, an instructional coach.

The original idea behind both Q-Comp and the MPS system was the same: All of these supports can work in concert. Trained observers could visit a teacher’s classroom and, combined with information about where the students in it were strongest and weakest, could help formulate new strategies to plug gaps or identify ones that other teachers could use.

“We have a sustainable model in place,” said Hegre. “Q-Comp can add enhancements to this.”

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Comments (8)

  1. Anonymous Submitted by Anonymous on 09/12/2013 - 11:33 am.

    I know Beth doesn’t consider teachers’ opinions worth anything, but readers should know that her top estimate of the cost in Minneapolis of legislatively mandated teacher evaluations is not 100 million, it is 300 million, almost none of which was appropriated by the legislature.

  2. Submitted by Andrew Kearney on 09/12/2013 - 11:57 am.

    A Moral Depravity

    I am not one of those who criticize teachers, scapegoat the inner city schools or denigrate unions but it is a moral depravity to funnel 9 million to the MPS schools to be used largely to ‘coach’ a failing system. A disclaimer is immediately needed. There is no way with the SES characteristics the district is dealing with that this district can achieve our society’s lofty educational goals however defined. But they could greatly increase the reading capabilities and therefore the outcome results by moving away from ideology and embracing science in how they instruct students.

    The board, administration and teachers might be divided about other matters but they are united in their commitment to the so called “Balanced Literacy” approach that is responsible for at least 20 percentage points of underachievement.

    Take a look at the district’s Literacy Plan. Think of the cost of every elementary student receiving an hour and a half of literacy as the plan claims-it far exceeds 9 million. Look closely at how that tax payer funded time is spent. Teachers open with an hour “Readers Workshop” starting with a whole class exercise, a work period in which students read individually and with partners and finally a closing meeting to share what has been read. The instructional strategies used are a collection of non-scientifically validated instructional methods like “reading aloud,” “teachers verbalizing their own thoughts while reading orally,” “shared reading,” “guided reading” and “independent reading.”

    There are three fatal flaws to this use of time. First the typical classroom has a range of five years in terms of instructional level and it is probably more in the typical MPS classroom. Children learn by being instructed at the correct instructional level. You can’t do that in reading with a whole class approach. The second flaw is the lack of a strong core curriculum that has been scientifically proven to increase achievement for at risk children. There really is no curriculum for reading at MPS there is an ideology. The MPS plan is one for children who already know how to read and that is not their students. Finally, where are the five components of the National Reading Panel and that panel’s call for “direct instruction of scientifically validated instructional strategies?” They are there alright-but only as add on’s to the unscientific ideology based system of believing that children learn through exploration and osmosis that is the core of “Balanced Literacy”. Direct instruction is infrequent and incidental. And we are going to give them more money to coach this system?

    We are now moving out of the era of accountability and so there will no longer be a spotlight on the under-achievement of MPS students. What has survived is the balanced literacy ideology of under teaching MPS students and the resulting achievement gap. Everyone wants to solve that problem but no one wants to do anything about it because of cost. If MPS were to use the science we have with the resources they have they would get significantly better but not satisfactory results. Society would then be put in a corner because there would no longer be an excuse to avoid the SES question. As long as MPS mis-educates students the battle continues to the detriment of students as they pass through, one by one, their formative years with no recourse and no repeats available.

  3. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 09/12/2013 - 04:46 pm.

    My personal experience

    …when expressing an opinion to Ms. Hawkins has been the antithesis of what Rob Levine suggests. Just sayin’…

    Andrew Kearney’s critique is fascinating — maybe we could get a further investigation into what he’s alleging? Teaching reading is something about which I admit I know almost nothing. My classroom years were in high school, where the ability to read was presumed, though admittedly with more assurance at the beginning of my career than at the end. Be that as it may, I don’t know how reading is taught in MSP schools, or in suburban Twin Cities schools, or to what degree those are comparable. Since command of the language seems to me fundamental, and essential to virtually every other type of learning, those are issues that seem worthy of examination to me. It would be good to know the degree to which Mr. Kearney’s assertions are likely to be correct, and, whether yea or nay, what ought to come next.

    • Anonymous Submitted by Anonymous on 09/13/2013 - 07:54 am.

      I was talking about teachers who are leaders in the movement against education deform – and there are many. Beth wrote a story once about one who ran for the school board and lost to the deformers’ money – her story was misrepresented by Ms Hawkins; when she tried to correct it she was *banned* from commenting on MinnPost. Conversely Ms Hawkins has plenty of time to listen to and write about plutocrat sponsored astroturf groups like E4E, whom she didn’t correctly characterize, and presented as representing the opinions of Minneapolis teachers.

  4. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 09/12/2013 - 04:59 pm.

    An addendum

    Mea culpa for forgetting to include this in the previous post:

    Who’s doing the evaluating of teacher effectiveness under this Q-Comp system? I was evaluated at least once a year, always without advance notice, and — this seems important — never by someone who was a practicing teacher in my subject area. I was always evaluated by an administrator, and some of those administrators, over the years, were certified to teach, but to my knowledge, and with a single exception, no one who evaluated me was a practicing teacher in the 5 years (an arbitrary number, to be sure) leading up to the first time they evaluated my classroom technique(s). The single exception was the principal who retired the same year I did. He’d been teaching his subject area within 5 years of his first evaluation of my classroom techniques.

    Trouble was, his subject area was “Driver’s Education,” and not really comparable to academic subjects. It was also his undergrad major (his graduate school major was, of course, educational administration).

    What does the “training” that empowers the evaluators in this system consist of? How long, and how detailed, is it? How many evaluators are teachers themselves?

    My experience was that the people doing the evaluating of teachers were people who either did not want to teach, or who had proved themselves inept in the classroom, and either way, found shifting to the field of educational administration a useful strategy to stay involved in education without having to actually practice what I’d argue is the hard part. If the people doing the evaluating are not themselves teachers, or have gotten 30 days of training in preparation for determining the efficacy of someone else’s career, I’d have to conclude that they’re emperors parading in the nude, and the evaluations would have — at least in my household — little credibility.

    • Submitted by Beth Hawkins on 09/12/2013 - 06:25 pm.


      Many of the evaluators are teachers and administrators–many more of the former than the latter, if memory serves–who have undergone extensive training and have had to prove they merit certification. And there are safeguards built into the process that many teachers feel make it hard for an administrator to punish teachers they may not like. In fact, the concern I heard from teachers was that they are finding the feedback meaningful and would like it earlier in the year and as quickly after the observations as possible. Moreover, the stakes–discipline, firing–are decoupled from the process. The evaluators’ data is incorporated into the teacher’s individual development plan.

      I’m happy to go figure out exactly what the certification process is. I can tell you it’s being talked about as a model other districts should consider. And I have talked to a number of teachers who are excited about the prospect of having formal, paid time set aside to talk to one another about their gleanings.  

      Although like everything in teacher policy, so much depends on implementation, doesn’t it? I think there is a real opportunity here for teachers to take ownership of the process so that the brass are kept on their toes. 


  5. Submitted by Joe Musich on 09/12/2013 - 05:39 pm.

    So how .–

    coulld you spend more time speaking to your statement

    Backing up the assertion that the process is not geared toward punishing under performers is critical.

    It is a huge but underdeveloped comment. MPS teachers have already been burnt by the q comp process. Where are the safeguards ? And as has been said who’s observing? What are the motivations of observers ? Plenty of people out there are trying to “escape the classroom!!” Where are the safeguards against that motivation ? Ask some teaches their thought.

  6. Submitted by Lynnell Mickelsen on 09/17/2013 - 11:19 am.

    I think Q.Comp 2.0 is a great example

    ….of the MFT and the district working together. If this works out as planned, it will be a great use of the state funds—better than incremental pay bonuses and better than the “getting-paid-to-attend-the-following workshop” approach of the last Q.Comp agreement.

    Ray Schoch’s post was a great example of what drove teachers crazy about administrator evaluations in the past….i.e. being evaluated by someone who doesn’t understand your subject area or what you do. Teachers have my total empathy on that one.

    There is no such thing as a perfect, flawless evaluation of any one. But this sounds a huge step up from what we’ve had in the past.

    Bravo to both sides for working this out. I hope the MFT membership votes to pass it.

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