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Teacher-evaluations delay is met with push-back

More than identifying and weeding out “bad” teachers, many educators see the value of performance evaluations as a tool to drive professional development.

Thursday afternoon, Andover Republican Branden Petersen walked out of a state Senate Education Committee hearing and into the office of Gov. Mark Dayton, where he requested a meeting. The topic: That afternoon’s vote to delay the rollout of statewide teacher evaluations until the 2015-2016 school year.

Sen. Branden Petersen

It’s the second year in a row that Petersen has made the same trip across the Capitol’s marbled halls to talk to Dayton about the same issue. An issue that, back around Thanksgiving, he predicted would come up in pretty much the way that it now has.

Among the points Petersen raised — unsuccessfully — during the hearing:

  • That Senate File 2459 was not posted to the committee’s agenda the night before the hearing, so only those education advocates who happened to be on hand — or were invited by the DFL majority — got to testify.
  • That proponents of the delay did not seem to have consulted the governor, who frowned on a move last year to push back implementation, or the U.S. Department of Education, which last year warned that there would likely be consequences.
  • That the law SF 2459 would modify was passed into law in 2011, that a task force spent the ensuing two years developing a state baseline for teacher evaluations and that that model has been in existence for a year.
  • And that there was no reason the bill — which had already failed to be heard before the majority’s self-imposed deadline for inclusion on the session’s winnowed agenda — had to pass out of committee a scant hour after it was taken up.

Indeed, committee Chair Patricia Torres-Ray, DFL-Minneapolis, seemed a little skeptical herself, pressing the bill’s author, Apple Valley DFLer Greg Clausen, on the need for the delay.

Bill merges two initiatieves

On its face, the bill has plenty of merit. It would essentially merge two complementary initiatives, a new evaluation system that can be used by districts that do not have their own, and the state’s alternative compensation and teacher profession development program, Q-Comp. And it would provide funding of $455 per teacher in districts that have not adopted Q-Comp.

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And in part because it is perennially underfunded and has traditionally been viewed as a merit pay scheme, Q-Comp has not proven popular. That it could be the other half of the evaluation-and-development walnut was not under consideration until administrator began tapping the funds to support evaluation.

More than identifying and weeding out “bad” teachers, many educators see the value of performance evaluations as a tool to drive professional development. Minneapolis Public Schools, now in its second year of a lauded evaluation system, this year asked for and received Q-Comp funds to support more intensive “job-embedded” training, versus the more traditional short, stand-alone workshops that are not terribly effective.

Indeed, remove the delay, Petersen told his fellow committee members, and he could get behind the bill.

A cynic would be forgiven for suspecting that without the money to both hand out tax breaks — a lynchpin DFL issue in a year when the governorship and the entire House of Representatives is up for re-election—and appropriate that funding, what comes next is renewed insistence that teacher evaluations are an unfunded mandate.

In 2011, a GOP-controlled Legislature passed a law requiring every teacher in the state to begin undergoing evaluations in which 35 percent of the outcome was based on student performance. School districts had until the 2014-2015 academic year to create their own systems in conjunction with their teacher unions, or to adopt a model system designed by a task force that spent a full two years coming up with a system that many feel is less rigorous than the law’s original proponents intended.

Model is being piloted

After protracted struggle over the incorporations of student outcomes, the task force produced a model a year ago. A number of districts are piloting the system this year. A very early look at results suggests teachers appreciate evaluations that are tied to professional development and that doing them well is resource-intensive.

But even before the task force was finished, efforts to delay implementation surfaced in the state Senate. Neither the House nor Dayton were said to be keen on backing off of the law, although the frequency of evaluations was lessened and the definition of the data on outcomes that can be used loosened.

A state commitment to the new evaluation system, which jibed with U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan’s policy priorities, was one reason Minnesota was among the first states in the country to get a waiver from compliance with No Child Left Behind. That waiver is up for renewal right now, and Duncan has not been shy in warning other states that delays might result in “enforcement action.”

Delay could cost the state its waiver

While the issue was before the 2013 Legislature, Amy Walstien, the director of education and workforce development policy for the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, wrote to the U.S. Department of Education. In essence, the response she got said that teacher evaluation was a bedrock and delay could cost the state its waiver.

Nor is it clear that evaluation is the boogey man it was even three years ago. A survey conducted last spring by the education advocacy group MinnCAN found that 90 percent of teachers surveyed were in favor of evaluations that were performed in conjunction with professional development. Four in five thought that the data ought to factor into tenure.

MinnCAN leaders last fall toured 19 districts in greater Minnesota that are getting great results with challenged populations. Most, they found, had been successfully evaluating teachers for years, according to Executive Director Daniel Sellers.

“We have to be realistic and transparent about what additional funds are necessary, and not let budget negotiations stall the full rollout of our evaluation system that Minnesotan teachers, administrators and students need,” he said after the Senate hearing.

“Interconnected with evaluations, we support all teachers having access to meaningful professional development opportunities that they play a significant role in developing,” Sellers added. “We’re thankful that 2 percent of the state’s education budget is devoted to teachers’ professional development — and with last year’s historic increase in education funding, Minnesota schools are already seeing more funds invested in efforts to support struggling teachers and elevate master teachers.”

A problematic passage

There is one other problematic passage that did not come up at Thursday’s hearing. The revamped system would leave it to individual teachers to decide whether the results of the peer observations that will constitute the majority of their classroom observations will be shared with their higher-ups.

From the Education Committee the bill moves on to the Judiciary Committee, which has not yet scheduled a hearing. If it passes out of the Senate via the omnibus education bill, proponents will presumably have to contend with House Education Committee Chair Carlos Mariani, a St. Paul DFLer who has been a staunch backer of evaluations in the past.

And finally, Petersen may get his meeting with the governor, who signed the evaluation law in 2011.

Minnesota Capitol photo © Minnesota House of Representatives