For years, prospective Minnesota teachers were certified through a checklist considered standard in most states: passing training courses and tests and then completing a year of student teaching.

But in a major overhaul, Minnesota in 2012 will become the first state to assess first-time teachers' real-life performance. Under the new approach, independent evaluators will grade videos of applicants' abilities to execute meaningful curriculum, engage with students and produce lasting results. And universities can expect their students' passing rate to be used at accreditation time.

"This is a way to really capture what teaching should look like," said Mistilina Sato, a University of Minnesota researcher who helped design the program.

The increase in standards comes as national leaders turn the education reform debate toward teachers' effectiveness. School districts are experimenting with everything from ending tenure to allowing principals to fire ineffective teachers, to offering cash in exchange for higher test scores.

Minnesota's new certification program, known as Teacher Performance Assessment, has received widespread accolades from even teachers' unions.

"It's not a paper-and-pencil test. It's real-life classroom assessment of a teacher's abilities," said Tom Dooher, president of the teachers' union Education Minnesota.

"It includes input and evaluation from experienced educators, using evaluation methods supported by actual research."

The nation's eyes will be watching as Minnesota, already known for its high teaching standards, redefines what makes a good teacher.

Nineteen other states are working to roll out their own versions of the program in the coming years.

Mia Tabberson, a sophomore elementary education student at the University of Minnesota, raised concerns that candidates will perform differently if videotaped.

"But overall," she said, "I think it's a good idea."

About 4,000 teachers in training apply to teach in Minnesota schools through one of 651 licensing programs offered at 31 accredited colleges and universities each year. Besides depending on teachers' ability to pass two exams, that approach relied heavily on course requirements, said Karen Balmer, executive director of the Minnesota Board of Teaching, which approves teacher licensing programs.

"We had no way of knowing if they did well in those courses or showed up when the important standards were delivered," she said.

Under the new program, anyone in Minnesota wanting to teach early childhood learning, special education, elementary literacy or high school math, English, science and social studies will be required to send a classroom videotape showing their teaching skills to the teaching board.

Trained evaluators will grade the video, looking for things such as a teacher's level of engagement with students and how well the teacher explains lessons.

Applicants' videos will not be made available to the public.

Candidates will be certified based on their video and test scores, as well as surveys completed by them and their student-teaching employers. Without certification, they can't teach in the state.

In the meantime, the state is searching for money to pay for equipment, evaluators and a secure data center to store the videos.

While the developing process is largely funded through foundations, including a $200,000 grant from the Bush Foundation, the final certification costs will be split among taxpayers, students and higher learning institutions.

Daarel Burnette • 651-735-1695