The year-old state program provides an attractive financial incentive to school districts that are willing to dump the old system of automatic teachers salary increases, which are based on seniority and education levels. Approved districts get an extra $260 per student if they switch to performance pay.
Gov. Tim Pawlenty recently visited Eden Prairie to announce state approval for that school district's alternative compensation plan. Pawlenty is a big booster of the program, which he calls Q Comp. He offered a kid-friendly explanation of performance pay to students at Oak Point Intermediate School.
"What we're talking about here today is trying to find ways to recognize and reward teachers for some things other than just how long they've been teaching," Pawlenty said.
Eden Prairie will get $2.6 million to launch an alternative compensation plan for the next school year. The new system will allow Eden Prairie teachers to earn an extra $2,700 a year by surpassing performance goals. Under the old system, teachers would have needed five years to make similar gains.
Eden Prairie Superintendent Melissa Krull says the district and its teachers have formed a new partnership to improve student achievement.
"When you can fairly compensate your employees for good work, and you can line that compensation up with goals and plans and you watch achievements being made and rewards then follow, I think that's fair and that's good for teachers," Krull said. "And I'm happy that our teachers are going to be rewarded for this good work."
The state's performance-pay program requires districts to provide structured training and evaluation sessions for all teachers. State Education Commissioner Alice Seagren said beginning teachers will have mentors to help them through their probationary years. And tenured teachers who are struggling in the classroom will also get help from their colleagues.
"I think this will help those teachers to become better," Seagren said. "Because maybe they'll have some peer support, some coaching to identify maybe their weaknesses and help improve them. And eventually you know if that doesn't work, maybe those people would choose to say I realize that maybe this was not the profession for me."
Supporters of alternative compensation say the old seniority pay system is driving people away from the teaching profession. Starting teachers in Minnesota make an average of just under $31,000. The overall average salary is nearly $47,000.
Judy Schaubach, president of the statewide teacher's union Education Minnesota, says salaries are simply too low.
"It takes much too long of a time to get to the top of the salary schedule," Schaubach said. "New people coming into the profession are not going to be attracted to the starting salaries or stay if it's going to take 30 years to get to a professional salary level. So that part of the system needs to change."
Schaubach generally supports the principles of Minnesota's alternative compensation law. But she says the short list of participants is a good indication of the difficulty districts are having trying to make the switch. She says most of the 15 approved districts had been negotiating compensation changes for several years. Schaubach says teachers and school leaders in some districts have no interest in making changes.
"Well I think there's real skepticism about is this just something else that will come and go?," Schaubach said. "If we go through all these hoops and do all this work will the money really be there to sustain it? How much benefit will we actually get out of doing this? And I think these are legitimate questions."
State education officials say $57 million is still available for school districts ready to switch to an alternative compensation system next year. They estimate 140 districts are preparing applications.