A radical new approach to evaluating teachers could end their tenure protections and tie job ratings to student test scores, changing the face of education in Minnesota.

The proposal is part of a massive education funding bill that will come before the Minnesota House on Tuesday, with the backing of top GOP leaders.

DFLers support a softer version, but both sides, along with the governor, now agree the state must devise some method of evaluating teachers.

The bill requires school districts to give teachers one of five effectiveness ratings. Kept confidential, the ratings would determine whether teachers keep their jobs. Top performers would get bonuses, while those on the bottom could get bounced, no matter how long they'd been employed. Tenure, a system that offers expansive job protections to teachers who make it past the three-year probationary period, would be scrapped in favor of renewable, five-year contracts.

The changes come at a time when teacher accountability has been heavily scrutinized, with budget restrictions often forcing administrators to fire good teachers while holding on to those they consider less than competent.

Rep. Branden Petersen, R-Andover, who sponsored the policy changes, said they would represent a dramatic shift in Minnesota's education system.

"You walk up to [people] on the street and they can't believe that we don't evaluate teachers based on student performance already," he said.

Petersen's proposal would require between 40 and 50 percent of a teacher's rating to be based on district or statewide tests that measure individual student growth.

Critics, including leading House DFLers and the state's powerful teacher union, say that approach relies too heavily on student testing to measure teacher effectiveness.

The Dayton administration, which recognized the need for some form of teacher evaluations in its earlier, seven-point education plan, prefers a more open-ended, DFL-sponsored proposal.

"If we want teachers to teach to the test, they'll teach to the test," Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius told a Senate committee last week. "But what we want is teachers to get creative with our children."

Another, potentially more serious impediment: Dayton on Monday said he will reject budget bills that carry major policy provisions, which he says should be voted on separately. If he vetoes the K-12 funding bill, legislators would have to decide whether to offer up the evaluation and tenure proposals in a separate policy bill.

In a letter last week to Rep. Pat Garofalo, who chairs the House Education Finance Committee, Cassellius warned that "any policy provisions not tied to the budget should be removed so we can focus on the budget."

How it works

A coalition of business groups, including the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, developed the conceptual framework for Petersen's bill with input from the Bush Foundation.

School districts would use student testing growth, parent surveys and administrator evaluations to rate teachers on a scale from "highly effective" to "ineffective." After several years at a level, teachers attain statuses such as "standard" or "exemplary."

When tests aren't available or applicable -- as in art or music -- teachers would work with administrators to develop assessments.

Teacher contracts would be re-assessed every five years, and poor ratings would be grounds for termination. The bill eliminates an existing "last in, first out" law that requires newer teachers be dismissed first during downsizing.

The alternative bill, crafted by Rep. Kathy Brynaert, DFL-Mankato, does not include a ratings system and gives no specific weight to student testing.

"I don't think we can say 50 percent or 40 percent or 10 percent until we look at the exact measures involved and ask what is it that this body of data tells us about student learning," Brynaert said. The state education department would devise an evaluation process for districts that do not develop their own.

Measuring performance

One question drives most of the disagreement: To what extent can student tests measure teacher performance?

"They're obsessed with tests to evaluate teachers, and that's not what tests are designed for," said Tom Dooher, president of Education Minnesota, which supports Brynaert's bill. Dooher said student and teacher performance are "connected, but they're also very distinct entities."

Supporters of Petersen's proposal, like Garofalo, R-Farmington, contend that is misguided.

"The union's objection is that you cannot measure teacher effectiveness compared to student achievement," Garofalo said. "I fundamentally disagree with that." He said he remains confident the administration and Legislature will reach an agreement by the end of session.

Minnesota's primary statewide test, the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment, measures student growth year-to-year. Petersen said MCA-IIs are not intended to be used under the bill until they are offered more frequently. But other tests already offer more fluid assessments, such as the Northwest Evaluation Association's MAP.

Students at Concordia Creative Learning Academy, a charter school in St. Paul, take the MAP test four times a year in a variety of subjects. Director Mary Donaldson, who testified in support of Petersen's bill, judges teachers heavily on whether they have brought students up at least one grade level. They used to rely on more subjective measures, but Donaldson said the new method works better.

"It all leads to achievement," Donaldson said. "Because if you're doing all of those things, you will get the achievement."

The Senate bill does not have the evaluation provision.

Eric Roper • 651-222-1210