Prickly debate over contours of Minn. teacher evaluations

Tom Dooher
Tom Dooher, president of Education Minnesota, in an undated file photo.
MPR Photo/Tom Weber

At the moment job evaluations are hit or miss for Minnesota teachers.

Some school districts offer teachers regular reviews of their work while others do not, said Tom Dooher, the president of the state's teachers union, Education Minnesota.

"The stories are horrible," Dooher said. "Maybe 10, 15 years without an observation or an evaluation, which we think is wrong."

That's about to change. A law passed two years ago will require Minnesota school districts to evaluate all of the state's more than 50,000 public school teachers every year starting in the 2014-15 school year.

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Across the nation, education officials are talking, at times contentiously, about how best to evaluate teachers. A new teacher evaluation system was a key point of dispute that led to the recent Chicago teachers' strike.

Minnesota is in the early stages of putting together its new statewide teacher evaluation system with input from teachers, school administrators, lawmakers and other groups outside of education.

The Minnesota Department of Education is working out the details with help from a 40-member working group. A major piece of the new teacher evaluation system under consideration is how student test scores should reflect upon a teacher's effectiveness. According to the new law, 35 percent of a teacher's evaluation must be based on how well students do.

The Chicago teachers' strike revolved around a similar point. Teachers feared their jobs might be in jeopardy if students in their class or their school didn't perform well.

There are similarities between the Chicago system and what Minnesota is developing. But Dooher thinks Minnesota's system will turn out better.

"I think ours is fairer," he said. "It's more about development, it's more about effectiveness, and it's more about how do we do this in a way to help the educators become better."

The new Minnesota teacher evaluations likely will be modeled in part on systems already in place, like one in the St. Paul school district.

"On a regular basis our principals are in classrooms making notes around observations of what they see teachers do," said Tim Caskey, the district's executive director of human resources.

In St. Paul, the evaluations focus on how teachers manage their classroom and interact with students. The evaluations can help identity what a teacher is doing well and where they may need extra training or mentoring.

But Sharon Freeman, an assistant superintendent in St. Paul, said the system does not aim to punish teachers.

Chicago teachers strike
Striking Chicago public school teachers picket outside Whitney M. Young Magnet High School on Sept. 14, 2012, in Chicago. A new teacher evaluation system was a key point of dispute that led to the strike, which was suspended on Sept. 18, 2012; students missed seven days of school.
Getty Images/Scott Olson

"It's not an 'I got you,'" Freeman said. "It's around making sure that teachers are at their best when teaching our children."

The St. Paul system is an example of the professional development side of teacher evaluations.

But some hope the state evaluation system has sharper teeth and aggressively identifies poorly performing teachers who should not be in the classroom.

Among them is Jim Bartholomew, education policy director for the Minnesota Business Partnership, who serves on the working group developing the new statewide evaluations.

Bartholomew, one of the few people from outside education in the group, agrees with the state teachers union that evaluations should help teachers to do their best, but he also wants to see a system that acknowledges there's a time for teachers to leave.

"If you do all of that and they still don't get to where they need to go," he said, "we have to be able to say 'It's time to look for another profession, perhaps.'"

Just what the final version of Minnesota's teacher evaluation system looks like will be ironed out in the coming months.

Meanwhile, school administrators are raising alarms about one missing component: funding.

Gary Amoroso, executive director of the Minnesota Association of School Administrators, said schools may have to shift money around to train teachers and principals to use the system.

"That could, depending on the district, have a negative impact on the students in the classroom," he said.

Amoroso hopes funding is up for lawmakers' consideration next session, two years before the teacher evaluation system is put in place.


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