Minnesota's pioneering teacher pay-for-performance system has grown into one that awards a bonus to nearly every teacher who participates.

Minnesota's pioneering teacher pay-for-performance system has grown into one that awards a bonus to nearly every teacher who participates.

Of the more than 10,000 Twin Cities educators who participate in the "Quality Compensation," or Q-Comp, system, 99 percent received some type of performance pay last year, a Pioneer Press analysis found. Teachers received an average bonus of $1,864 in the 17 metro districts that use Q-Comp.

About a third of Minnesota's 339 school districts are part of the voluntary system that has a budget of $76 million in state and local aid this fiscal year. The performance pay program is set to collide with a mandatory statewide teacher evaluation system lawmakers have yet to find a way to fund.

When former Gov. Tim Pawlenty created Q-Comp in 2005, it was hailed as a groundbreaking effort to hold teachers more accountable and reward excellence. It helped spark a national wave of new teacher-evaluation systems financed by President Barack Obama's $4 billion Race to the Top education-reform competition.

Supporters of Minnesota's system say it has transformed the way teachers are evaluated and trained. But critics are disappointed that their attempt to change the way teachers are paid by tying salary to student outcomes has been diluted.

"This program is in dire need of reform," said state Rep. Sondra Erickson, R-Princeton, a member of the Minnesota House's two education policy committees. "It has strayed from its original purpose.

There is nothing 'quality' about it anymore. We are supposed to be rewarding excellence in the classroom."

Erickson said she has tried to update the system but her efforts have been shot down.

Alice Seagren, who served as state education commissioner when Q-Comp was created, agrees the current system is not what Pawlenty and lawmakers initially intended. But she thinks it has positive impacts, which she hopes will continue to evolve.

"I think we expected it to be a more robust analysis of teacher performance," she said. "I hope it will continue to thrive and districts will think more about how they compensate people."

Seagren added that nearly every teacher receiving a bonus might not be an effective system.

The idea that teachers' pay should be tied in some way to student outcomes has grown in popularity nationally since Q-Comp was created. There is still little evidence that the promise of extra money for teachers translates into better test scores.

"I don't think (bonus) pay is what motivates teachers," said Tom Dooher, president of Education Minnesota, the state's teachers union. "It's sort of insulting to think teachers are holding back their best lesson plans for $1,500."

What Q-Comp has created are extensive professional development systems that didn't exist before it was implemented.

Q-Comp plans vary by school district; the state requires each system to include teacher mentoring, peer observation and rigorous professional development. Student achievement also must make up some part of how a teacher is evaluated.

Districts also often tie teachers' pay raises for experience and education, also called steps and lanes, to Q-Comp standards.

Before Q-Comp, professional development was limited and teachers had few chances to work with their peers to improve their teaching, Dooher said.

"It should have been happening, but the law was put in place because it wasn't," he said. "I don't think it was the intent, but what developed out of it is a very good approach to professional development."

Charlene Briner, the state Education Department's chief of staff, said Q-Comp has brought a team approach to teaching. The system was never meant to be an individual competition that awarded some teachers large prizes while others got nothing.

"If you are thinking about true merit pay, that's not what it is at all," Briner said. "We believe in the philosophy that a team approach, along with a new way of looking at accountability, will get us where we need to be."

Others see Minnesota's practice of providing performance pay to nearly every teacher as flawed and in need of revision.

Kate Walsh, president of the National Council on Teacher Quality, said significant financial rewards for the best teachers would help attract the best minds to the profession.

"The primary reason districts need to look at performance pay is to make the profession attractive," Walsh said. "The real way to do performance pay is to reward top teachers with considerably higher salaries."

State leaders such as Briner and Dooher argue that large bonuses encourage people to try to "game the system."

Walsh doesn't buy that argument.

"If you do it right and base it on objective measures and judgments, everyone will recognize the people who deserve higher salaries," she said.

National experts say part of the trouble with performance pay is there are still few proven ways to measure teacher effectiveness beyond test scores. Basing pay on one or two academic measures is ineffective, especially when so many things outside the classroom affect student achievement.

Tom Carroll, president of the National Commission on Teaching and America's Future, said it's easy to distinguish good teachers from bad ones. It's the large middle group that is harder to judge.

"That's why so many teachers are getting some incentive," Carroll said. "Our assessments are not refined enough. The real goal is finding the next top 10 (percent) or 20 percent who have the potential to be top tier."

Dale Ballou, a professor at Vanderbilt University who studies education policy, said an evaluation system where almost everyone gets some reward isn't necessarily a bad thing. The key is to have different levels of rewards for different types of success.

In the 17 districts that provided Q-Comp data to the Pioneer Press, just 29 percent received the maximum bonus their district offered, while nearly every teacher got something.

Districts that awarded performance pay were Burnsville-Eagan-Savage, Centennial, Eden Prairie, Farmington, Hopkins, Mahtomedi, Minnetonka, Mounds View, North St. Paul-Maplewood-Oakdale, St. Anthony-New Brighton, St. Louis Park, Spring Lake Park, South St. Paul, South Washington County, Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan, Roseville and Wayzata.

Each district has multi-tiered requirements that allow teachers to earn different amounts of additional pay.

"The general public might see it as a red flag, but that's not it at all," Ballou said of the large number of teachers receiving some performance pay. "It's a sweetener for something that otherwise might be difficult for people to swallow."

Teachers appear to like the program. In the Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan school district, the largest in the state to use Q-Comp last year, teachers voted overwhelmingly in November to continue the system, said Jim Smola, president of the district's teachers union.

All but one of the district's 2,032 teachers received performance pay, with an average bonus of $1,784. Fourteen percent got the maximum $2,000 bonus.

Dan Bishop has seen the district's Q-Comp program as a teacher, peer evaluator and now leader of the system. As a teacher, he felt the extra compensation was "a nice recognition of the extra work I was doing to make myself a better teacher," he said.

Bishop believes the time teachers get for collaboration is the most important aspect of the district's system.

"Teachers work hard, and the pace moves very fast. This gives them time to reflect and get objective feedback from a trained observer," Bishop said. "I really believe in it."

The Q-Comp program might be popular with teachers and education leaders, but it is unlikely it will continue much longer in its current form. Last year, a working group of educators and others finalized a new teacher-evaluation system that soon will be mandatory for all school districts.

In September, 20 school districts will pilot the new evaluation system that includes using student test scores and academic growth to measure teachers' effectiveness. Unlike Q-Comp, there is no additional pay for teachers included in the new system.

Gov. Mark Dayton has proposed $10 million to get the system up and running, but a long-term funding plan has yet to be developed. Cost estimates for implementing the system statewide are all over the map, from $70 million to $200 million.

That cost and uncertainty worry educators.

Several school districts recently joined the existing Q-Comp system in order to get a head start on planning for the new requirements, state education leaders said.

There's a financial incentive to do so. Q-Comp districts get an extra $260 per student to implement professional development and performance pay systems. But some worry that could lead to a funding imbalance between districts in the program and those that are not.

Rep. Paul Marquart, DFL-Dilworth, plans to introduce legislation next month that would fund the new teacher-evaluation system. No plans have been finalized, but some have discussed tapping the current Q-Comp money to operate the new evaluation system.

"What I don't want to do is hit schools with another unfunded mandate," Marquart said.