FFM Bulletin 9/25/08

Governor Pawlenty introduces new education accountability initiative

Governor Pawlenty introduced a series of proposals on Tuesday to improve K-12 student performance and bring greater accountability to Minnesota's public schools. Included in this set of proposals is a renewed focus on merit-based teacher pay. School districts and charter schools currently have the option of participating in the state's Quality Compensation for Teachers ("Q Comp") program - adopted in 2005 - which bases teacher salary increases on a locally agreed upon peer evaluation process that takes into account a teacher's skills, responsibilities, and student academic achievement. 39 school districts and 21 charter schools participated in Q Comp during the 2007-2008 school year. Under the governor's latest proposal, all districts must include performance-based pay raise provisions in new teacher contracts, instead of relying strictly on the "step and lane" pay scale, which is a rigid system that bases teacher pay exclusively on years worked in a district (steps) and advanced degrees, or continuing education (lanes).

While the teacher compensation proposal has received the greatest media attention, the governor also announced proposals to set tougher standards for teacher training programs, waive some teaching requirements to help attract scientists and other professionals to fill teaching shortages in math and science, and set up new summer school programs for eighth-graders. The governor has said that his K-12 package does not involve a huge infusion of new tax dollars but instead "changes the way we're spending the money... it does not involve a major change in the state's budgeting practices."

Predictably, Education Minnesota - the state's largest teacher union - has not taken kindly to the governor's proposals, especially as they relate to merit-based teacher pay. Union president Tom Dooher stated, "To say you're going to tie a teacher's pay raise to how [students] start the year and how they end the year, that's not even reasonable to talk about."

Not even reasonable to talk about?

The only group that thinks it's unconscionable to base some portion of a professional's compensation on performance is Education Minnesota and its allies in the Legislature. Dooher went on to say, "there are too many factors that we do not control. We take in every kid. We don't know if they slept that night, if they had breakfast, what their home life is." That may well be true, but does that mean a teacher's effectiveness and student's performance are utterly unrelated? Not according to the evidence, which shows a direct correlation.

A study in Dallas found "the performance gap between students assigned three effective teachers in a row, and those assigned three ineffective teachers in a row, was 49 percentile points." And a 2003 study by K-12 education expert Dr. Robert Marzano found that over the course of a single school year, student achievement gains were 39 percent higher in classrooms with effective teachers than with teachers deemed ineffective. Compare that to class size - a factor Education Minnesota frequently cites as a critical determinant of student success - which when reduced from 23 to 15 students, has been found to improve an average student's academic performance by just eight percentile points.

So teaching is a profession that demands the greatest scrutiny on performance, not the least. And while the teachers' union may have a clear self-interest in derailing education accountability initiatives, Minnesota parents have a vested interest in making sure the union fails in that endeavor.

City of Minneapolis says its unreliable wi-fi network will cost $1 million more than expected

The City of Minneapolis has announced that completing the city's wi-fi network will cost at least $1 million more than previously thought. The $1 million will cover the replacement of several of the city's "decorative light poles," upon which many of the wireless network's currently sit. It turns out these light poles are incapable of supporting the radios, which explains why so many in Minneapolis have had trouble accessing the supposedly "city-wide" wireless network. The city's chief information officer, Lynn Willenbring, says the light pole issue could not have been predicted because of "the newness of wireless networks across the country." Of course, if there were so many unknowns about this technology, the city could have waited before committing to spend $12.5 million for wireless service (not counting the $1 million overrun).

45 million uninsured Americans?

In virtually every political debate and media account on our current health care system, we are told there are "45 million uninsured Americans." The number has helped demonstrate the depth and seriousness of America's health care crisis, and is often used to illustrate the need for a universal, single-payer system. Unfortunately, the statistic may also be a misleading and simplistic portrayal of the insured in America.

Sally Pipes of the Pacific Research Institute offers some clarity in the health care debate by deconstructing the oft-cited statistic. Key points:

  • 9.1 million uninsured have an annual income of over $75,000
  • Nearly 10 million uninsured are not US citizens
  • 14 million uninsured are already eligible for government assistance under existing state or federal programs such as Medicare, Medicaid, and State Children's Health Insurance Program (SCHIP)

The fact that millions of Americans do not have health insurance is a serious problem, but there cannot be an honest debate over health care reform as long as some individuals continue to use inflated and skewed numbers to further their political goals.

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