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At Issue: Q Comp found wanting

Published (2/6/2009)
By Kris Berggren
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Jon Steffes, a second-grade teacher in the La Crescent-Hokah Public Schools, tells the House K-12 Education Policy and Oversight Committee Feb. 4 about the effect of Q Comp on his classroom. (Photo by Tom Olmscheid)Is Q Comp, Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s preferred school reform measure, truly a breakthrough that will bring Minnesota schools up to grade, or is it just the mandate du jour?

Skeptics say Q Comp, as the Quality Compensation for Teachers alternative compensation program is commonly known, is a stick that burdens school districts with greater costs, paperwork and compliance requirements and threatens collective bargaining agreements. Supporters think of it as a carrot that provides a much-needed monetary incentive promoting teacher professional development, improving classroom instruction and boosting students’ academic proficiency. Additional annual compensation paid to teachers in Q Comp has ranged from $68 to $2,500.

However, a program evaluation by the Office of the Legislative Auditor released Feb. 3 found “the effect of Q Comp on student achievement can’t be adequately measured with existing data.”

The report also highlights inconsistencies in application and oversight between districts. Judy Randall, a program evaluator with the Legislative Auditor’s office, said that smaller districts in particular have difficulty finding time and money to even apply for Q Comp.

Currently 44 school districts, or 13 percent of districts statewide, and 28 charter schools, 18 percent of all charter schools, partake in Q Comp plans. Participating districts receive up to an additional $250 per pupil beyond the regular education funding formula. Each district’s plan is self-determined within Education Department guidelines and must be approved by teachers.

Rep. Marsha Swails (DFL-Woodbury), an Advanced Placement English teacher in Woodbury, a Q Comp district, said she has enjoyed both the pay increase and collegiality from Q Comp, but said she is “very troubled” by the lack of “conclusive evidence that this is increasing to student performance.”

Rather, she said investing in early childhood education and all-day kindergarten are “proven” with “sound data” to make that difference in student achievement.

Randall said the lack of conclusive results is partly due to the small sample size and short period of implementation — only 11 of the 72 districts and charter schools now participating in Q Comp have done so for all three years of its existence. Randall said it is “not statistically possible” to isolate the effects of Q Comp from other initiatives such as curriculum changes, class size reduction or other professional development programs many districts are simultaneously implementing.

For example, Swails said Woodbury teachers use the Professional Learning Communities model, widely used by districts nationwide including many Minnesota Q Comp districts, which incorporate the model into their Q Comp plans.

“It’s easy and inexpensive,” said Swails. There is a one-time cost for training, and teacher teams spend 45 minutes of staff time a week in small groups.

The report did find evidence Q Comp helps districts fund professional development opportunities, and that instills confidence in some legislators about its merits.

About half the teachers in Q Comp schools responding to a survey agreed Q Comp “has improved professional relationships among teachers at my school,” while 43 percent said Q Comp “improved classroom teaching.” Administrators in Q Comp schools had higher praise: 85 percent said professional relationships had improved and 83 percent said teaching had improved.

“Does (Q Comp) really help student performance? I say yes because I see it every day in some of my students,” LaCrescent-Hokah Public Schools second-grade teacher Jon Steffes told the House K-12 Education Policy and Oversight Committee Feb. 4. Although “there is more work involved” as a Q Comp participant, he estimates two-thirds of teachers “embrace Q Comp in our school. It helps them become better teachers, focus their instruction.”

Although Q Comp is often referred to as a merit pay program, Rep. Randy Demmer (R-Hayfield) said “the staff development part is probably just as revolutionary for the entire teaching staff” and “probably as effective for growth as the whole merit pay idea.”

“I think what we are talking about is teacher empowerment,” Rep. Keith Downey (R-Edina) said. He supports Q Comp, but won’t yet say it should be mandatory.

Rep. Jim Davnie (DFL-Mpls), a middle school teacher, had harsh words for what he characterized as the prevailing mythology around merit pay. He told the House K-12 Education Policy Committee Feb. 4 that he doesn’t believe “that the one missing component of student performance is teacher pay. And that if you just offer to pay me more I will get off my duff and get to work. As a teacher, I think that’s offensive but I also think it’s a ham-handed understanding of human motivation.” Yet, he said he is “still generally positive” about Q Comp’s effects on “the culture of my profession.”

But in a tough budget year, the anticipated increasing costs of Q Comp could help decide its future. Some legislators say the data simply doesn’t support the governor’s claims, and now is not the time to impose its costs – projected at $66 million for the current fiscal year — on Minnesota taxpayers. Those numbers are expected to rise to a projected $166 million ($120 million in state aid, $46 million in levy) in the upcoming biennium.

“Is now the time to be expanding this statewide?” asked Rep. Denise Dittrich (DFL-Champlin). “This is a huge policy shift for the state of Minnesota to be investing this much money and a certain portion of it property taxes, to fund teacher compensation.”

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