The Farmington district is moving forward with a new system of teacher evaluation, despite some school board members' concern that the plan doesn't fully comply with Minnesota law.
Like every Minnesota district, Farmington was required to either design its own teacher evaluation system or implement a model put forth by the state this year.
The problem, two school board dissenters said, is that the plan doesn't put enough weight on student achievement, which statute says should account for at least 35 percent of a teacher's score.
In a district that prides itself on being innovative, the debate — among board members, teachers, the union president and the superintendent — raises tricky questions: How do you quantify student or teacher performance? And what's the value of doing so?
"The administration, along with the exclusive representative of the teachers, developed a plan that does not comply with the 35 percent [weight] on student achievement," said Laura Beem, a board member who voted against it. "We can't say that ours, in fact, has more weight on student achievement when we have no weights in our plan."
Farmington's system, which has eight components, doesn't place a numerical weight on any of them. Student learning is one of those eight areas and allows teachers to measure student progress using standardized test scores like the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments (MCAs) or other districtwide, departmental or grade-level assessments. Teachers also have individual growth plans that set student performance goals.
Including metrics would have kept the district accountable for student achievement, and numbers drive results in the private sector, added Beem, an accountant.
However, the union president and a committee of 20 teachers and principals that created the model think that while it doesn't put weights on each piece, it adequately emphasizes student achievement.
"I want to make it clear that the student learning part is a very big part of the plan," said Lynda Ihlan, president of the Farmington Education Association. "I don't think that when you are teaching a child, you can look at that child in percentages — you have to look at that child as a whole."
Superintendent Jay Haugen added that the resistance to measuring outcomes with numbers is part of a larger philosophical shift by the district.
"If we put a number to it, it's clearly more than 35 percent," he said. "It's the number that is so 'anti' the way we're trying to do our work. It's the thing that shackles us to the past."
All the recently gleaned data gained from quantifiable measures like standardized testing hasn't improved student outcomes or "moved the needle on the achievement gap," he added.
'A new way'
Farmington applied to be an "Innovation Zone" with the Minnesota Department of Education nearly two years ago. The designation allows the district to try new ideas with less red tape. In two years, they have given iPads to all students, experimented with flipped classrooms (doing homework in class, watching lectures at home) and started a school where students learn at their own pace.
The goal is to personalize students' education, tailoring it to their needs and unleashing a passion for learning, Haugen said.
"We're looking for a new way," he said.
The district's strategic plan also emphasizes innovation, and "some parts of the teacher evaluation plan got in the way of our strategic plan," he said.
The approved plan, he admits, "really stretched, probably to the limit, what was in the law," but he's "really confident" it follows the law's intent.
Board member Julie Singewald, who voted against it, also raised concerns about the lack of specifics. Having measurable goals doesn't just demonstrate where improvement is needed, but allows people to celebrate their successes, she said.
Beem said Farmington's plan is "contrary to what the vast majority of Minnesota schools have designed … and many of those schools are also innovating and doing different things."
The district should not compromise on excellence, she said.
The board should have been involved in creating the plan from the beginning, more than a year and a half ago, she said.
The district's teachers overwhelmingly voted in favor of it, Ihlan said, and didn't like the state's model, which would have meant more paperwork for principals.
Haugen added that one study estimated the state model would have cost $350 per pupil to implement. And there's no "empirical evidence that this kind of a system has an impact on student learning," he said.
Instead, the district should invest in initiatives that "we know matter" in terms of improving outcomes, he said, like developing strong relationships with students.
In 2011, state law mandated that districts assess teachers regularly and put a 35 percent weight on student performance. Having that law helped Minnesota get a waiver from No Child Left Behind requirements.
Across the state, districts have been deciding how they will evaluate teachers. Many, like Farmington, were already doing so, but the frequency and methodology varied.
"Teachers want to know how they're doing, they want to improve their practice," said Ihlan, adding that the new system wouldn't be too much of a change.
"We already had a really strong process," Haugen added.
Plans don't need state approval to move forward, but districts must submit a letter signed by the superintendent and local union president explaining what they are doing, said Josh Collins, spokesman for the Minnesota Department of Education.
If those groups don't agree on a plan, the state model is the default, he added.
"Many districts are using elements from the state model," he said. "It doesn't appear many are using it in its entirety, which is their option."
Now that a decision has been made in Farmington, the district will follow that plan, Ihlan said.
But Beem still hopes for more measurable results in the future.
"The plan that we have is a good starting point. We have to really look at this over time to make improvements that ensure we have quality teachers," she said. "I would hope that as time goes on, we can tweak this."