Decisively knocked out in the opening round, Minnesota’s educational sparring partners are picking themselves up to try again at a meeting today of a broad cross-section of stakeholders looking for a winning strategy to secure federal funds in the second round of the Race to the Top competition.
Other members of the education community, though, say they are scared the two sides — the state Department of Education and Education Minnesota, the teachers union — are so entrenched that they will leave on the table the hundreds of millions of dollars at stake.
“I don’t hear enough talk about how we all are going to give up some of our positions to find a middle ground,” said Charlie Kyte, executive director of the Minnesota Association of School Administrators. “I’m hopeful that educators and others in Minnesota will decide to pull back together and not just tweak the proposal that went in but rewrite it significantly.”
“We heard loud and clear that while we had some good ideas, we didn’t have a clear and widely agreed-upon plan,” said state Sen. Terri Bonoff, DFL-Minnetonka. “We have to have a profound and deep commitment to solving this problem, and that means we have to be united.”
Blunt federal feedback
Last week, along with news that Minnesota placed 20th among states in the first competition for federal grants, far behind such states as Louisiana and Georgia, state education policymakers got some blunt feedback: Despite the state’s long history as a leader in education, its first-round application for education stimulus dollars failed to lay out a comprehensive vision for closing the achievement gap.
Reviewers praised parts of Minnesota’s bid but expressed concern that education leaders disagreed on numerous Obama Administration priorities, such as changing the way teachers are trained and evaluated, ensuring that struggling schools get a fair share of the best educators and turning around failing schools. A number of local teachers unions, including those in Minneapolis and St. Paul, endorsed the proposals, but the statewide Education Minnesota did not.
The Race to the Top reviewers repeatedly said the disagreement between the union and the state Department of Education caused them to fear the state would have trouble creating and instituting bold reforms.
Forty states applied for the grants, which the Obama Administration created to encourage innovation in school reform. The application guidelines laid out specific criteria for the types of reforms the U.S. Department of Education wanted to see, and outlined the number of points states could earn for demonstrating a solid plan to achieve each of them.
Each of 16 finalists named last month scored more than 400 of the 500 total possible points. Minnesota earned 375, fewer than Louisiana, Ohio, New York, Washington, D.C., and a number of other places without the same reputation for fostering good schools.
Ultimately, just two states met U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan’s threshold for “bold” reforms: Delaware’s 455-point score earned it $100 million, while second-ranked Tennessee’s 444 points won $500 million.
Duncan said he hopes to hand out 10 to 15 grants next fall, after states that want to try again have a chance to study the initiatives that set the winning proposals apart and revamp their applications accordingly.
Minnesota had asked for $330 million in the first round; second-round grants are expected to be smaller.
Policymakers need to move fast to meet June 1 deadline
New applications aren’t due until June 1, but policymakers need to act fast if they are to respond to feedback about their first bid’s weaknesses.Gov. Tim Pawlenty will be on hand at today’s session to offer opening remarks.
Some of the changes require action from the Legislature, where several ranking members have one eye on next fall’s contest to succeed Pawlenty and the other on securing Education Minnesota’s prized electoral endorsement.
The political squabbling has overshadowed some larger problems, however. MinnPost talked to a number of stakeholders who reviewed the state’s application and reviewers’ feedback. All agreed that the state erred by trying to present ongoing programs as a unified reform strategy.
“The plan does not move past past success to a comprehensive and coherent reform agenda going forward — unless, the state’s plan is to continue down its current path,” opined one of the anonymous federal reviewers who studied Minnesota’s proposal.
Minnesota, the reviewer added, “does not articulate a clear strategy of how the state will increase student achievement state-wide, decrease achievement gaps, increase graduation rates, and college enrollment and proficiency.”
“The feedback we got said the things [we] thought were bold didn’t seem that way to other people,” said Bush Foundation President Peter Hutchinson, a former superintendent for Minneapolis. “I personally am not convinced we were that bold.”
The head of the St. Paul teachers union, Mary Cathryn Ricker, spent hours with state Department of Education officials before Minnesota’s application was submitted. The evaluators read the state’s proposal as a package of “stand-alone silo ideas,” she believes. “That is a very legitimate criticism,” she said. “They wanted to see a broader connection to how Minnesota was really going to leverage this money.”
One of the thorniest of the reforms the feds wanted to see would tie teachers’ job evaluations to student performance. Critics of the approach — including many unions — say teachers shouldn’t be held accountable for test scores because they can’t do anything about many roadblocks to student success, such as poverty, high mobility and family instability.
Proponents counter that because traditional union contracts pay everyone according to seniority and academic preparation, they don’t reward the best teachers or provide incentives for them to take jobs in struggling schools.
Hybrid system needed for evaluating teachers?
Many union leaders agree that some hybrid system for evaluating and promoting teachers is needed but oppose Pawlenty’s controversial pay-for-performance plan, known as Q-Comp. In its grant application, Minnesota proposed mandating participation in the program.
The five-year-old Q-Comp efforts, a complicated mix of voluntary professional development and wage incentives based on student test scores, has been slow to catch on with teachers unions throughout the state. Last year, the state legislative auditor advised against making the program mandatory, saying state oversight had been uneven and that there were no data showing its effectiveness.
It’s also unclear whether the state could come up with the money to give merit pay to all of the teachers that would qualify if the program were extended throughout the state. Right now, Minneapolis teachers are owed $4.6 million in unpaid performance incentives from two years ago. Administrators in Minneapolis say the state has never given them as much Q-Comp money as the district is supposed to pay out.
Both of Race to the Top’s winners and most of the finalists either have or are in the process of creating hybrid teacher evaluation systems that incorporate information about student performance. Tennessee has long tracked student test data in a way that allows the information to be linked to individual teachers, as well as to teacher-preparation programs and particular instructional methods.
Tennessee this year passed legislation that calls for basing half of a teacher’s evaluation on the data. Because it’s a right-to-work state, there was no union opposition to the proposal, which enjoyed broad bipartisan support.
The other grant winner, Delaware, not only evaluates teachers based on performance but also has regulations tying teacher tenure, compensation and promotion to student growth. It also plans to provide retention bonuses to highly rated teachers who take jobs in struggling schools, along with other career opportunities.
There are some significant barriers to such approaches in Minnesota. For starters, our relatively strong open-records laws would probably require information about academic achievement by classroom to be public. By contrast, in Tennessee, only the principal and the teacher in question are privy to this information.
More problematic, educators are generally critical of the state’s standardized test, the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments, which do not track performance by individual students or classes from one year to the next. Because of this, in addition to the MCAs, many districts also administer tests that show how much each student learns in a year and where the gaps are in their understanding of each subject.
The latter approach, used by many Race to the Top finalist states, offers a major advantage for teachers, who stand a better chance of ensuring that a student makes a year’s progress, rather than having to bring students who may start the school year several levels behind all the way up to their current grade level.
State lost points for struggling-schools plan
Minnesota also lost points for failing to have a system for making sure that struggling schools got an equitable share of the most effective teachers and for not linking student test data to the programs that trained their teachers. Also lacking, in the evaluators’ view, were career paths to reward and retain the best teachers.
In tandem with basing pay on performance, Delaware and other states will offer their best teachers the opportunity to become coaches or mentors, among other creative promotions. Teachers unions in St. Paul and St. Francis are working on a pilot program called Career Teacher that state officials reportedly felt shows promise, but the initiative is in its infancy.
Another category where Minnesota lost points was the creation of alternative routes to teacher certification. The U.S. Department of Education wants states to allow licensing of teachers who are trained outside of mainstream universities.
Minnesota has two alternate routes for teacher certification, Teach for America and one created by St. Paul Public Schools, but because both are associated with Hamline University, they did not meet federal criteria. Sen. Bonoff has introduced legislation to open up the state’s certification process.
Prior to Race to the Top, many of the state’s education policymakers had been concentrating their energies concerning teacher training on a major initiative under way at the Bush Foundation. In December, the nonprofit announced it would spend $40 million over the next 10 years helping 14 universities in Minnesota and the Dakotas improve their teacher-preparation programs. Participating schools would guarantee K-12 students taught by their graduates learn a year’s worth of knowledge for every year in the classroom.
In addition to initiatives concerning teacher effectiveness, the reviewers were critical of Pawlenty’s plan for overhauling the state’s worst-performing schools. Several weeks ago, the governor announced the creation of an Office of Turnaround Schools within the state Department of Education to take over and restructure some three dozen schools that persistently post low test scores. Federal reviewers noted that the governor had no legal authority to intervene, however.
Administrators familiar with the application’s preparation said the Department of Education was aware that state laws needed to be changed to allow the takeovers but thought it was too risky to go to Legislature for authorization this year. Not only do many lawmakers want Education Minnesota’s endorsement, in coming weeks they must make up both a $1.2 billion shortfall and the $1.5 billion in school funding Pawlenty “unallotted” last summer.
Whether today’s meeting generates the political will needed for a second Race to the Top application, stakeholders need to work toward common ground, say policymakers. Closing the achievement gap is a priority for Obama, and one of the key ideas behind Race to the Top is to tease out best practices so other states can emulate them.
The president has said he will seek $1.3 billion to expand the program next year, and education-watchers expect his administration to continue to use financial incentives to get states to comply with its reform agenda. Few states can afford not to try to get in line.
The Bush Foundation’s Hutchinson said he is disappointed that the federal evaluators did not see more potential in Minnesota’s application, but he appreciates the level of rigor they’ve signaled they expect. “You’ve got to give them credit — they’re pushing us really hard,” he said.
“If we’re going to go forward, we’re going to really have to kick it up,” he added. “I don’t think it’s a slam-dunk that we can.”
St. Paul union leader Ricker agrees. “They’ve given us feedback we can really work with,” she said. “Come 11:59 p.m. June 1, we had better be completely exhausted and convinced we didn’t leave a single point on the bench.”
Beth Hawkins writes about schools, criminal justice and other topics.