The Free Press, Mankato, MN

June 9, 2014

Most districts ready to evaluate new teachers

By Tim Post Minnesota Public Radio News
The Mankato Free Press

---- — As the school year ends for students, Minnesota’s school districts are the ones with a big summer homework assignment ahead of them.

Districts need to have a new system for evaluating new teachers in place by fall. Most of the state’s 333 school districts are ready to implement the new evaluations when the school year starts. But it’s unclear if all will meet the deadline because some are still developing their plans.

“Roughly three-fourths of our school districts have plans ready to go,” said Denise Specht, president of the state teachers union Education Minnesota. The rest have work to do.

“School districts are right now ‘MacGyvering’ what they’ve got to fit the law,” she said.

In 2011, lawmakers revamped Minnesota’s teacher evaluation law to overhaul the old system, in which some teachers went a decade or longer without receiving proper feedback on their work.

Under the new law, new teachers will be given formal evaluations each year for three years. They’ll also meet on a regular basis with veteran teachers.

Experienced teachers will receive a formal evaluation once every three years.

A teacher’s performance will be based on how well their students are doing academically and how well they handle a classroom, based on observations by administrators and other teachers.

The law requires districts to develop evaluation systems with their local teachers unions. They need to be approved by both union members and school boards before Sept. 1.

One option for districts is to use an evaluation model developed by state education officials. This school year, 17 Minnesota districts tried using some or all of the state model.

Among them was the Caledonia district in southeastern Minnesota, which received a $70,000 state Department of Education grant to test the system.

Supt. Ben Barton said the new system was a big improvement over the previous one, which only required districts to evaluate new teachers during their first three years on the job.

“It’s taking us away from the days where teachers close their doors and are taught in a silo and did their own thing. This model really pushes people to work together and collaborate as a team.”

Although Barton likes the state’s model, he found it required too much paperwork and too many classroom visits for already busy administrators like himself.

“There’s some pieces in there that aren’t practical, and that’s why we had to pare it down and make it more user friendly for us,” he said.

A February report by the University of Minnesota, which reviewed the pilot project midway through the school year, found that teachers and administrators supported the statewide evaluation system because it boosted professional development for teachers.

But they also expressed concern that the system lacked the state funding needed to be sustainable and placed a heavy burden on principals as evaluators.

The Caledonia district is working with teachers to develop its own evaluations.

Janelle Field Rohrer, president of the Caledonia union, said the state’s evaluation model proved burdensome, particularly for the district’s special education teachers, who were required to write student goals twice because district and state paperwork didn’t match up.

Rohrer, who teaches English, history and art to middle and high school students, wants the district’s own evaluation system to be streamlined.

“I’m hoping it won’t be too overwhelming,” she said. “Paperwork is going to be a part of it. We have good teachers in Caledonia, I know they’ll work through it. It’s going to be something to learn.”

State education officials expect fewer than 20 of Minnesota’s more than 300 districts to use the state model for their evaluation systems.

“The state model is one way to meet those requirements, but certainly not the only model.”

Tyler Livingston, educator evaluation specialist for the Minnesota Department of Education, said the state’s model is an example of best practices and districts can create whatever teacher evaluation system works best.

“There’s few ceilings, if you will, to what possible practices could emerge from this work so long as it meets with the criteria that’s laid out in the statute from the Legislature,” he said.

The Department of Education, the state teachers union and the Minnesota Association of School Administrators are working with districts to help them put their teacher evaluations in place by fall, he said.

Districts in Minnesota’s Q-comp system, which uses state money to reward teachers for their performance, need only to tweak their existing evaluations. Close to half of the state’s districts are in Q-comp and can use $75 million in state funding next school year to pay for evaluations.

The 188 non Q-comp districts will have to split $11 million.

Specht, the state teacher’s union president, said lawmakers should consider giving more money to districts.

“This is one time money and we are going to have to come back next year and talk about funding this so we can do this well,” she said.

Specht thinks even if all of the state’s districts are able to get their evaluation systems in place by the fall, they’ll likely need to tweak them during the first year of implementation.

Livingston agrees. He said the evaluation system isn’t meant to be a rigid and will be a living exercise that changes with the development needs of the state’s teachers.

Daniel Sellers, executive director of the education reform group MinnCan, said the work districts are doing shows just how important the evaluation system is.

“We think that’s a sign that school leaders and teachers and community leaders are supportive of the idea that teachers should have meaningful and relevant evaluations,” he said.

Minnesota Public Radio News can be heard in Mankato on 90.5 FM or at