Audit: Q Comp effect on student performance inconclusive

Legislative Auditor
Legislative Auditor James Nobles (left) discusses his office's report on the state's Q Comp program, during a Senate committee hearing at the Capitol on Tuesday. Seated to his left is Judy Randall, who conducted the audit.
MPR photo/Tom Weber

The Legislative auditor's report says there's no way to credibly conclude that Q Comp schools have better performing students.

Why not? Q Comp hasn't been around long enough.

"We don't know that it hasn't had an effect on student achievement, we just don't know either way," according to Judy Randall, a manager in the Legislative Auditor's office who helped write the report.

Senate hearing
Members of the Senate E-12 Education Budget and Policy Committee listen to testimony Tuesday from Legislative Auditor James Nobles, on a new report regarding the Q Comp program.
MPR photo/Tom Weber

Q Comp is now in its third year - with 72 public and charter school districts participating.

One goal of Q Comp is to get rid of professional development that doesn't really help teachers develop their trade. Instead of going to a boring lecture on something arcane and calling that 'development', teachers are encouraged to work with mentors and learn from each other. Non-Q Comp schools might also do that, but they also might not be getting funding for it.

The Legislative Auditor's office surveyed teachers and found they generally approve of the way their schools have changed professional development.

"Teachers think the professional development aspects of Q Comp can help them with what they're doing in the classroom," Randall noted. "But that doesn't necessarily translate to a student's test score. Again, there are lots of factors in a student's test score."

Seagren & Nobles
Education Commissioner Alice Seagren and Legislative Auditor James Nobles chat before a Senate hearing Tuesday, in which lawmakers heard from both about a new audit about the Q Comp program.
MPR photo/Tom Weber

But that's not to say the usual way of paying teachers or the usual system for professional development was any better, either, which is why lawmakers today were not calling for an end to Q Comp.

But some, like Sen. LeRoy Stumpf, DFL-Plummer, wondered why Gov. Pawlenty wants to expand a program that doesn't have enough conclusive data to know if it's actually helping students perform better.

"The governor has the problem of how do you pay for new program expansions at a time when you have a huge deficit? I'm not sure I have an answer for that one yet," Stumpf said.

Rep. Mindy Greiling, DFL-Roseville agreed.

"I like Q Comp, but you have to start things in a small way, especially when we don't have money," Greiling said. "And [Gov. Pawlenty] is just so anxious with this signature program of his to fall all over his feet and fund it in a fiscally irresponsible way when we don't have conclusive evidence yet."

But even without the conclusive evidence, Q Comp's supporters, like Education Commissioner Alice Seagren, believe teacher quality has to be a statewide focus.

"When you look at top-performing countries in the world, what they do is recruit the very best and the brightest, they pay them a wonderful starting salary so they're competitive with the rest of the private sector in their countries, and then they continually professionally develop them all throughout their career," she said.

Seagren even pointed to something she doesn't like about Q Comp - that it's too metro-centric. Rural districts have long complained they, even if they're doing some of the development stuff that Q Comp encourages, they don't have the manpower to dedicate to the long process of applying for all that extra funding from the state.

So, Seagren argues, why not make Q Comp available to everyone by law?

"We can have a class size of 15 to 1, and if we have a poorly-trained, ineffective teacher in that classroom, it makes no difference about the class size."

Today's audit also recommended some nuts-and-bolts changes in how the department administers Q Comp. Seagren says she agreed with all of those findings and added some of the fixes are already in the works.

Lawmakers also spent a few minutes today criticizing Seagren for the department's decision to spend $181,000 in federal money on its own independent study of Q Comp. That report was released yesterday and drew a number of similar conclusions as the Legislative auditor. Seagren described the reports as complementary, not redundant.

Q Comp has also become part of ongoing budget talks. Sen. David Hann, R-Eden Prairie, noted that Q Comp still makes up a small percentage of the overall education budget in Minnesota.

"It's $49 million a year out of $7 billion that we spend - and as legitimate as all these questions are about Q Comp, we're not asking any of these questions about the rest of the $7 billion we spend on education," Hann said. "And it would seem to me, if these are valid points, we should be asking about everything we're doing."

If the governor does get his way, though, Q Comp will become a much larger piece of that pie - all the more reason why this audit is likely to have some shelf-life. At least through this spring's legislative session.

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