The tense moments of a special legislative session are gone, a government shutdown averted, yet in July, Minnesotans will mark the 10th anniversary of the great government shutdown of 2005. Educators and politicians can also mark the 10-year anniversary of Q Comp.
Installed and funded after late-night, behind-doors dealing, Q Comp was pivotal to ending the shutdown, and legislative leaders finally agreed to sign on. Then-Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s plan, to be implemented shortly afterward by the Minnesota Department of Education, would augment the pay of Minnesota’s best teachers. So how have 10 years of incentive pay (quality compensation) advanced students and the work of teachers?
I’ll begin with the bad news: The Education Department in 10 years has yet to isolate even a small number of teachers deserving of bonus pay. No significant data exist to validate the program and its funding. Initially, the department lacked research on incentive-pay outcomes and had no solid plan for implementation. It took its marching orders from above, and thus was forced to offer school districts upfront cash for saying yes. It allowed each district independently to determine how to discover and reward “the best teachers.”
The result: Districts, strapped for cash, were anxious to begin (teachers, too, voted in favor of the money). And in order to simplify the impossible task of assessing teacher effectiveness, the districts awarded 99 percent of teachers $1,000-plus yearly for their exceptional work with students.
What each district lacked in the process was clear documentation to link a teacher directly to advancement in student achievement. And since the original goal of Q Comp was to find out which teacher among his or her peers was achieving measurable gains with students, none of more than 100 participating districts ever charted the progress of their employees case by case.
Some good news (that’s actually bad): When polled, many teachers indicated that they liked the incentive-pay program. Yet they were never asked: Is Q Comp a valid educational advancement, able to demonstrate clear student gains attributed to teachers? Notably, by this time, those polled already knew the rules of the game — that this was not really about teacher achievement with students. It was understood to be a broad payoff of staff for mandatory employee compliance, so please play along. Early on, one administrator (at a meeting I attended) explained to the staff that all teachers must attend 30 hours of meetings, and added “Now you know what you are being paid for.”
Yes, more bad news: During the 10-year period, public school teachers and their union did let go of some professional ethics — being on the take for mostly signing in and attending meetings. But those who questioned the premise of the program and their participation were reminded by their superiors about the consequences of insubordination.
The plan, a political fix, had come down from the top, from the governor’s wish list and dealings. Then, it became a directive to the Education Department to get as many districts — by any number of creative means — to sign on to Q Comp. Those numbers grew to about one-third of Minnesota districts over the 10 years, with many teacher-friendly program variations. None of these variations was able to alter the repeating educational outcome: At great expense, no significant change is reported concerning student achievement.
One more bad thing: For relatively minor financial rewards, teachers en masse undermined the status of their profession, while helping school administrators tack together a fanciful facade of high staff achievement with students — to continue the flow of money from the state.
A small measure of good news: Out of the Pawlenty master plan for performance pay, teachers have generated more time for professional development. Improved contact with colleagues has increased conversation around subject matter and teaching strategies. This has reinforced the practice of gathering professionals who are too often isolated within busy classrooms and tight classroom schedules. Yet this basic measure could have been achieved 10 years earlier with a more enlightened application of limited education funds — and without the outside interference.
While Q Comp is now under greater scrutiny by legislators, the lack of progress to decommission Q Comp (if indeed there is critical legislative will) may mean a few more years and multiple millions more spent on teacher incentive programs and pay.
Quality in education should always be rewarded. Yet Q Comp did not earn its “Q,” while broadly compensating participants. As political reform conceived by powerful external forces — ignoring the educational experience, knowledge and insight all around — Q Comp will eventually join the list of other failed public projects. It qualifies as a giant step backward for our educators and for those they serve — Minnesota students.
Steve Watson, of Minneapolis, is a retired teacher.