Education Minnesota offers option for federal education dollars


As the state of Minnesota puts the final touches on its entry in the federal Race to the Top competition, Education Minnesota announced its own proposal for using federal dollars to more directly support great teaching and learning in the classroom. “This federal program is supposed to be all about improving student learning and closing the achievement gap,” Education Minnesota President Tom Dooher said. “Instead, the state Department of Education’s plan emphasizes more bureaucracy, more top-down state control of Minnesota’s schools, and more testing at the expense of great teaching.”

Education Minnesota, the state’s union of 70,000 educators, said it cannot support the state’s proposal put forth by Governor Tim Pawlenty in its current form.

The federal dollars are intended to support effective teaching and learning in the classroom to shrink the achievement gap, while ensuring that the education of high performing students is not diminished.

“We urge the state to join with educators in a bold, all-out effort to address the achievement gap by surrounding students and teachers with the support they need in order to succeed,” Dooher said.

The Race to the Top program, part of the federal economic stimulus package, has Minnesota and other states racing to put together school reform proposals dramatic enough to attract a share of the $4.35 billion pot. The deadline for the first round of applications is Jan. 19.

Race to the Top asks states to address four main reform areas: Standards and assessments, data systems to support instruction, “great teachers and leaders” and turning around low-performing schools.

States will be judged on how they link student “growth” on tests to individual teachers and principals; intervene in struggling schools; support charter schools; adopt national academic standards and assessments; use data to improve teaching; support alternative preparation routes for teachers; and a host of other criteria. States also must show broad stakeholder support for their plans, including participation by local school districts and buy-in from local and state unions.

The Minnesota Department of Education is seeking $200 million for a four-year plan that emphasizes teacher evaluation and ratings. Participating districts would have to adopt an “enhanced” version of Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s Q Comp program. In addition, student academic growth would be extensively tracked and applied to individual teachers for everything from pay to licensure.

While Education Minnesota can support some parts of the state proposal, the union does not agree that more tracking and ranking will lead to better teaching, Dooher said. “Minnesota already has great teachers,” he said. “We need to give them the tools to succeed.”

The centerpiece of the union’s plan calls for turning the state’s lowest-performing schools into educator-led Centers of Teaching Excellence where the most successful teaching methods can be identified and shared with educators statewide. Students and teachers would have the benefit of small classes, the latest materials and technology, intensive professional development for teachers, and partnerships with parents and the community within the school building.

Education Minnesota’s proposal includes a “grow-your-own” program to recruit promising young people to become teachers in high-needs schools and areas of teacher shortage, such as math, science and teachers of color. It would provide college-credit courses in high school and significant opportunity for hands-on experience during the prospective teacher’s preparation.

Other parts of the plan would create several rigorous teacher evaluation models that can be adapted to local needs; use state funds to expand the teacher-led Educational Research & Dissemination program statewide; and provide training for all teachers and principals on using data to adapt teaching to students’ needs.

Dooher noted that St. Paul Federation of Teachers is implementing some of these measures now through an Innovation Grant from the American Federation of Teachers.