DFLers question Pawlenty's push to expand teacher merit pay in light of the report, which said it's hard to tell whether the program actually boosts student achievement.
There's not enough evidence to know if Minnesota's program linking teacher pay with performance affects student achievement, according to a report released Tuesday, and that has DFL legislators promising that Gov. Tim Pawlenty's push to expand it statewide will be met with resistance.
The report by the state legislative auditor's office said "it is difficult to draw conclusions about the effectiveness" of "Q Comp," or "Quality Compensation," because it's voluntary and school districts have many other programs in place.
"The state is not quite where it needs to be in terms of measuring the growth in student achievement," said Judy Randall of the legislative auditor's office. She presented the report to the Minnesota Senate education committee Tuesday.
Pawlenty has proposed increasing funding by $41 million over the next two school years to expand it to all public and charter schools in Minnesota. But the state is facing a $4.8 billion budget deficit.
"When we have very limited resources, we need to point them to programs that do work," said Sen. Kathy Saltzman, DFL-Woodbury.
Rep. Mindy Greiling, DFL-Roseville, chairwoman of the House K-12 education finance division, was more succinct: "It ain't going to happen."
The Legislature passed the Q Comp program in 2005 at Pawlenty's behest. The program is meant to enhance teacher training and financially reward effective teachers. The state has so far spent $143 million on the program.
Seventy-two school districts and charter schools, among almost 500 statewide, participate in program. They receive an extra $260 per student annually, at an estimated cost of $49 million to the state for the 2008-09 school year. Most of the districts raise about 30 percent of the total cost through local property taxes.
The legislative auditor's report also found that:
• The Department of Education's process for reviewing schools' applications has been inconsistent. If a district that had its application approved for the 2005-06 school year had to submit it now, it could be rejected.
• The program enjoys overwhelming support among school administrators, with more than 80 percent saying it had improved classroom teaching and will improve student performance. Fewer than half of teachers under the plan expressed similar sentiments.
• Administrators and teachers regarded the program's teacher training more favorably than its pay aspects.
• Not all participating districts and charter schools are subject to regular oversight by the Department of Education.
Education Commissioner Alice Seagren said Tuesday that she agrees with many of the auditor's conclusions about how the department can improve its oversight.
But even though no conclusions can be drawn about how Q Comp affects students, "there is clear research that if you have a highly effective, highly qualified teacher in the classroom, then that will have an impact on student achievement," she told legislators. "...That is number one. That is fundamental. That's why Q Comp is important and why I support it."
Tom Dooher, president of Education Minnesota, the state teachers' union, said Tuesday that the report "doesn't surprise us," and that the union's members "have told us some of these same things."
Q Comp has been much more of a draw for urban and suburban school districts than it has been for the rural districts in greater Minnesota.
Only 4 percent of school districts with fewer than 1,500 students participate, Randall said.
Small districts have more limited administrative staffs and have a harder time completing applications, the report found. Legislators on Tuesday said those concerns would need to be addressed before the program is required for everybody.
While Pawlenty plans to mandate Q Comp statewide, details from the Education Department show that only enough funding would be available to expand it to 70 percent of the state's students by the end of the 2010-11 school year, with plans to reach 80 percent by 2012-13.
Sen. Gen Olson, R-Minnetrista, implored her colleagues to give the program a chance. There's no evidence that scrapping it and returning to traditional, seniority-based pay scales will work better, she said.
"Abandoning it also doesn't have the potential to improve student achievement," she said.
Dooher agrees that teacher quality is the No. 1 in-school indicator of student performance. Measuring that, however, gets tricky.
"They're trying to quantify everything in a classroom, and it's just not something that's necessarily possible," he said. "There is an art and a science to teaching, and they keep trying to make everything a science."