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.”