VOICES | Pawlenty education plan: much smoke, little substance


Last week, Gov. Tim Pawlenty trumpeted his “Teaching Transformation Act,” a series of education proposals for the 2009 general legislative session.

Among other things, the plan would require most school districts to tie teacher pay increases to student achievement, raise standards for undergraduate teacher training programs while making it easier for non-teaching professionals to become teachers, and set up summer school programs for eighth-graders needing help in math and reading.

While the rhetoric might be agreeable, the policy relies more on smoke and mirrors than substance.

The governor has made noise about education before, most notably in 2003 when he convened a blue-ribbon panel to tell him what constitutes a “basic” education. The panel looked at the state’s education standards and determined the resources necessary to achieve those standards. Then Pawlenty and his allies took out their calculators and found that providing Minnesotans with a basic education would cost the state $1 billion more each year.

It was gut-check time. Which would come out on top – the cold, conservative “no new taxes” philosophy, or a policy outcome to benefit our children and Minnesota’s economic future?

We now know the answer. Since 2003, conservative policies have led the state into an era of educational underinvestment in which schools can’t afford to do the job required of them. The Pawlenty administration dropped the report, “Investing in our Future,” like a hot rock.

There the matter would have stayed except that a group of educators took the report, hired experts to put a dollar amount on the cost of a basic education, and then lobbied to get that money. They haven’t got the money yet, but their work is ongoing. The group is called P.S. Minnesota, but they might as well be called “Leaders Who Are Doing What State Policy Makers Should Be Doing to Improve Education.”

We’ve learned to greet Pawlenty’s education proposals skeptically. They may sound great on TV, but they have little opportunity to make it past the press release.

The governor’s “merit pay” idea is reminiscent of an old Steve Martin gag: He said hostage-takers should always make one unrealistic request so they can later prove they’re crazy. They should ask for a million dollars, a plane to Cuba, and to have the letter M stricken from the English language.

Instead of the letter M, Pawlenty wants all teachers to fall under his “merit pay” plan. “Merit” would be measured by student test scores, which don’t really measure merit. Instead, test scores measure how well students take tests. For years, Minnesota teachers have been open to “merit pay,” as long as the measurement truly measures merit. Test scores don’t do this and the suggestion is ridiculous.

To add insult to injury, the plan would be forced on the school districts which have had four years to join the governor’s “merit pay” program, Q-Comp, but have yet to do so. Presumably, the reason more than 300 school districts haven’t signed up for Q-Comp is because they don’t want to.

The proposal would also make it easier for math, science and engineering professionals to become teachers. At the same time, the plan would raise license testing standards for new teachers.

The common thread between these suggestions is experience – one of the most important qualities in a good teacher. Making the licensing test more difficult doesn’t meet this need, nor does allowing professionals access to students after only several weeks of training. The Governor’s plan addresses only a portion of the problem. We need a more complete plan. We need more new teachers and more professionals to join the profession; we need to train them thoroughly and we need to get them as much practical experience as possible. This plan doesn’t address that.

Another proposal: Set up summer school programs for eighth-graders needing help in math and reading. Sound’s great. Come up with the funding and let’s get ‘er done.

But state policymakers haven’t come up with money to even keep some schools open five days a week. Schools have seen a 13 percent decline in state aid since 2003 and revenue projections for 2009 are down.

It will be much easier to take these ideas seriously when state policymakers back them up with a strong investment in Minnesota’s schools, teachers, and students.