Star Tribune editorial: Don’t delay Minnesota’s teacher evaluations

Two years ago, the Legislature wisely decided to require that all Minnesota school districts evaluate teachers and include some measures of student performance in those evaluations. The law called for a task force to develop a model that district leaders could use if they were unable to come up with one that lived up to state criteria.

Allowing time to complete that work, the requirement was scheduled to take effect in 2014.

But despite that timeline — and the yearlong efforts of a teacher evaluation working group — there is a possibility that implementation could be delayed because of cost concerns. That shouldn’t happen. Improving teacher quality and narrowing Minnesota’s significant learning disparities between some groups of students is work that can’t wait.

Gov. Mark Dayton included $10 million in funding in his 2013 budget proposal. However, neither the House nor Senate education bills currently provide any new dollars. In fact, a recently added amendment to the Senate bill calls for postponing the required job reviews another year.

The Senate provision responds to a request from several education groups, including the teachers union and associations of state principals, superintendents and school boards. All are concerned that the 2011 Legislature failed to include new funding for the assessments.

By their estimate, doing the evaluations will cost Minnesota districts a total of $290 million per year. They also argue that the evaluation model developed by the working group will be tried in pilot districts during 2013-14, which will not allow sufficient time to analyze how well it works.

To their credit, some reform-minded members of the working group say that now is not the time to reverse momentum for the assessments. They point out that many districts, in their efforts to comply with the law, are well on their way with evaluations — even without additional funding.

A survey conducted by the group last year found that about 77 percent of the nearly 2,000 districts surveyed already had a written evaluation system in place. Some of those policies may need adjustment to align with state standards, but making those changes won’t always involve significant new expenses.

The payoff should be worth any additional costs. A recent study by the education advocacy group MinnCAN found that nearly 90 percent of teachers believe that evaluations that align with and help drive professional development that will advance student learning.

It’s also important to remember that many districts already receive money under the Q-Comp program, which was established during the Pawlenty administration to reform teacher compensation and tie it more directly to student performance. In addition, state money now earmarked for professional development could be used to offset evaluation costs.

Lawmakers should also consider the fact that Minnesota applied for and received a waiver from federal No Child Left Behind rules — in part because of its commitment to have the evaluation system in place by 2014.

Despite the clear connection between quality instruction and student achievement, Minnesota schools have generally done a mediocre job on evaluations.

In the past, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan has reprimanded this state and others for dragging their feet on teacher assessments.

He wasn’t alone. The National Council on Teacher Quality, the Center for American Progress and the American Enterprise Institute all gave Minnesota Ds for its teacher evaluation systems. And one of the reasons the state missed out on federal funds through the Race to the Top program was because of a poor rating on instructor assessments.

That should change — sooner rather than later. The Legislature should proceed with plans to implement the evaluation system, and school districts should embrace the opportunity to improve instruction.

This editorial originally appeared in the Minneapolis Star Tribune on April, 30, 2013.