ST. PAUL, Minn. -- An education bill that presents a new approach to the evaluation of Minnesota public school teachers is among the myriad policy changes included in a pile of recently signed budget measures being dealt with by state workers, who flocked back to their offices Thursday after a three-week government shutdown.
The bill sets a process of yearly reviews more directly tied to student performance, a method increasingly common around the country, in part because opposition from teacher unions has ebbed.
Supporters of the changes said they are aimed as much at rewarding good teachers as they are at disciplining bad ones. The chief Senate sponsor of the education bill said the amendment should allow local districts more latitude to get teachers out of classrooms if they consistently fail to improve student performance.
"It isn't just a process aimed to get rid of teachers," said Sen. Gen Olson, R-Minnetrista. "First and foremost, it's aimed at enabling teachers to improve their own effectiveness. But that also provides some better grounds, when that is not possible, to have systems in place to see they can be removed and put more effective teachers in their place."
The change to teacher evaluations is one part of a 141-page education funding and policy bill, itself among nine bills that make up the budget compromise between Gov. Mark Dayton, a Democrat, and the Republicans who control the Legislature. Republicans had initially proposed more sweeping changes to how teachers are rated, with those evaluations largely replacing seniority as the key factor in the teachers' ability to hang on to their jobs.
Olson said Dayton administration negotiators fought hard to hold onto collective bargaining and tenure protections for teachers, adding that it was one of the final sticking points as representatives of Dayton and the Legislature rushed to nail down a final agreement as the special legislative session geared up earlier this week.
With the new system, which will be phased in between now and 2014, teachers will fall under an evaluation process using a mix of factors under which student test performance, as well as student engagement and commitment, will be weighted at 35 percent.
Teachers will also be allowed to assemble portfolios of student work that demonstrate improvement. In addition, teachers who initially receive poor marks on their assessments will get professional support to improve on a set timetable.
School districts will get considerable latitude to come up with their own criteria for assessing teachers; those that choose not to set their own will be able to fall back on guidelines that the Department of Education is charged with assembling via a task force to be made up of educators and teacher organizations, business representatives and parent groups.
"I think it puts in place some consistent and firm guidelines that helps identify teachers who are struggling, gives them mechanisms to improve, and if they're not able to, then it provides a process and objective criteria for administrators to take the next steps necessary to remove them from the classroom," said Charlene Briner, spokeswoman for the state Department of Education.
A number of states have made similar changes to teacher evaluations in the last several years. Sandi Jacobs, vice president of the Washington-based National Council on Teacher Quality said it's still too earlier to gauge whether the changes are improving student performance.
But Jacobs said she's spoken to many teachers around the country who have come to like the new means of evaluation because they tend to be based more on objective criteria and leaves them less at the whim of school administrators.
Tom Dooher, president of Education Minnesota – the state's largest teacher union – said he sees "the real potential for positive change" in the new evaluation system. He said the union is not opposed to the removal of ineffective teachers who show now motivation to improve.
The return of state employees to their offices was a potent symbol of the end to the three-week government shutdown. At the Department of Natural Resources headquarters in St. Paul, Commissioner Tom Landwehr held the door open for returning employees while his children handed out cookies.
Dayton himself had planned to greet returning workers, but canceled his appearance while telling WCCO radio that he was suffering a headache and fatigue from long hours tied to the getting the budget deal in place.