At the end of this year, students won't be the only ones in Minnesota sweating out their report cards. Starting this fall, seventeen school districts from around the state will participate in a pilot program of a new teacher assessment system signed into law by Governor Mark Dayton in 2011.
Considering that the system is supposed to be adopted by the rest of the state next year, the pilot is expected to be very closely watched. For state Senator Branden Petersen, who was one of the chief sponsors of the bill when he was a state representative, the new system is good news because it replaced a hodgepodge of regulations that treated tenured teachers and those still on probation differently. According to Petersen, thanks to the new system, Minnesota's schools now have something they didn't before – accountability.
Minnesota is not alone when it comes to requiring more accountability from teachers. Across the country, states are implementing new evaluation systems. Many come as part of new flexibility that state education leaders received under waivers to the No Child Left Behind Act that requires every student be academically proficient by 2014.
The systems have been controversial because most require part of a teacher's evaluation be based on how their students perform academically. They've also produced mixed results.
Despite the bumps in the road, Timothy Daly, president of The New Teacher Project, said systems like the one Minnesota is implementing are key to improving the nation's schools. Founded by prominent and controversial education reformer Michelle Rhee, Daly's New York City-based group advocates for improving teacher quality.
As Daly pointed out, just because similar systems encountered difficulties in the past doesn't mean the entire approach is doomed, and that we can't expect teachers to improve if there's no one there to point out how and why they're failing.
Denise Specht, President of Education Minnesota, the state's teachers union, expressed guarded support for the evaluation system – noting that like all education stakeholders, teachers were supportive of accountability – but said that members weren't certain that lawmakers were in too much of a rush to get the evaluation system into the school and not giving those in charge enough time to find and correct mistakes.
No large metro school districts are participating in this year's test run of the state's evaluation system. Perpich Center for Arts Education, which runs an Arts High School and recently took over Crosswinds East Metro Arts & Science School in Woodbury, is the only metro district piloting the state's full evaluation model.
In contrast, Prior Lake-Savage schools are piloting part of the system that measures student performance with seven reading specialists.
Carlondrea Hines, principal of Perpich schools, said they participated so they could learn more about on how teachers using arts-based curriculum will be judged.
Teachers generally support the program, Hines said, but they still have a lot of questions. Their biggest worry is how student achievement and engagement will be judged, especially as assessments and standards continue to change.