Center for American Progress

Minnesota Principal Talks Teacher Compensation: Interview with Ron Wilke
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Minnesota Principal Talks Teacher Compensation: Interview with Ron Wilke

An elementary school principal talks about the early success of an alternative teacher compensation program in his Minnesota school.

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Robin Pam, Center for American Progress: I wanted to start by asking you to tell me a little bit about what Q-Comp is and how the alternative compensation plan is being used in your school. Can you describe that a little?

Ron Wilke, Principal, LaCrescent Hokah Elementary School: Sure, the LaCrescent-Hokah school district has been part of teacher alternate compensation programming for quite a number of years now. This will be going into our third year under the Q-Comp version. Prior to that, we were a part of a pilot program in the state.

What we currently do within our district has evolved over that period of time. And I think that one of the things that we’ve proven is that this is a hugely complex process and one that you don’t enter into lightly, and it requires a tremendous amount of trust between teachers and school officials, administrators, and probably to some extent, the community too.

Our program has evolved over time. It started out, it was a heavy focus on teacher performance. In our earliest version—this was prior to Q-Comp—how teachers were paid was largely determined by their formal evaluations, and we didn’t have a big student achievement component in it. It was all on “What is the teacher doing?”

Over time, it’s evolved from focusing on the individual teacher. It shifted from that toward the teaching practice. Teachers coming together, collaborating to improve what they do as teachers and to inform what we do on the teacher-learning side of things and in the collaborative environment. We rely heavily on student achievement data and focusing on student need. That’s what really drives things.

And that’s been a real positive outcome of the work that we’ve done over the years. It’s really helped to focus the conversation in terms of teacher learning, teachers deprivatizing their practice, coming out of their classrooms, coming together, and looking at student needs. And the whole achievement piece, the data, that’s the good side of the data.

CAP: So, is there a bad side that you’re alluding to there too?

RW: I guess if we try to reduce what we do in schools down to hard numbers, that’s a very difficult thing to do. In our earliest versions, it was focused heavily on teacher performance. There’s a lot subjectivity in that, and it takes a long time to come to common understandings. You can throw that at people, but I believe, to build those common understandings and those common sets of values, it has to come through experience. And it takes time to do that, and I think we’ve proven that to be the case.

Over the years—it’s been over six years now with Q Comp and back to the earliest versions of alternate pay —it easily could have come to an end where one side or another could opt out of this through the negotiations process. But we [the school and the teachers’ association] worked together over time to address all of the challenges and concerns, coming to consensus on what’s going to be best for kids but also, on the union side of things, what’s going to be best for teachers, too.

We’re talking about some pretty radical changes in the way we do business so there’s always going to be stress involved. At one point or another, we were probably close to being at rock bottom and some people were thinking that now this just isn’t going to work. But with good faith efforts on both sides, we’ve been able to address concerns and move forward.

And what we have now is connected with the state’s new version. Gov. Pawlenty brought forward this Q-Comp. As a building principal, somehow I’ve ended up being involved in this a little bit more than maybe the average principal in other school districts have. I’m certainly not going to speak for other schools but Minnesota’s version of Q-Comp has evolved too.

The Department of Ed has been, and the Q-Comp people there have been, very reasonable and they have listened. Yet, it’s not a one-size-fits-all with learning for students and it’s not a one-size-fits-all for school districts. We have had some nice flexibility without compromising the basic principles of what the state has set out there for the Q-Comp requirements to develop our localized version of it.

We’ve set up our own version within Q-Comp, following the basic rubric and guidelines laid out in Q-Comp, but we’ve localized it. There is the component of teacher evaluation. We also have integrated peer evaluation. Teachers still do the formal evaluations with their building administrator, but they also have options to do peer work.

We have the student achievement piece. It’s a part of this. It’s not a huge part of it, but it’s there. Within the Q-Comp model, there’s a professional development framework and expectations for teacher professional development and one of the strongest elements in the whole Q-Comp, from an instructional leadership perspective, I believe, is the professional development perspective that it brings. It’s focused on teacher collaboration, providing time for teachers in their workdays to come together, to look at student work, to make real-time decisions about what’s going on in classrooms, looking at common assessments and planning and adjusting instruction.

I’m listening to teachers right now. In fact I just had a discussion with a 30-plus year teacher yesterday who’s one of our facilitators of our teacher teams professional learning communities, telling me that this is the best thing that happened. She’s not speaking about Q-Comp per se, but the collaborative environment that we’ve put together. She’s saying this is the best thing that’s happened in all of her years of teaching. Folks truly see the potential to make significant improvements that are going to be sustainable and have value for the long term. From that perspective, it’s been a great, great thing.

There is a dark side to this that I don’t think I will ever agree with. If it is completely focused on a student test score, and if it were to be completely focused on that teacher performance, it will do much more harm than good. Teachers will be afraid to take risks, it will promote teaching to the test, we do too much of that already. Right now, we have teachers sharing at an extremely high level. But it could have created a competitive environment that would have really undermined our ability to do what we’re doing right now.

What I want to see is teachers coming together. What we are doing right now. And I don’t want them to be afraid of failure, that’s life, that’s the way we learn. But if we’re failing and we’re not doing anything about it, then yeah, absolutely, I’m going to hold our teachers and myself accountable for that. We are motivated. At least in LaCrescent, Minnesota, in our school district, the motivation is very high. It’s really not the money that’s driving people. We’re working within the system. We’ve tried to deflect the focus on that as much as possible.

The bonus that teachers get, we got the plan that’s kind of a cafeteria plan where teachers can count certain components of this towards salary advancements. But one of them [these components] is each site reaching their achievement goal that they’ve set. So we’ve set our goal, we got a huge action plan for what we’re doing to improve student learning and writing and at the end of the year—and we’re looking closely at a variety of data to set our goal—if we make it, the teachers receive a bonus. It’s not a huge bonus but then they also can count it for career advancement. Teachers get rewarded for doing what good teachers do, and they can advance through it very quickly. Much quicker than�??well we used to have a 30-step schedule.

CAP: Well let me ask you this, what do you think it would take to expand the program to more schools in Minnesota and possibly even to a much larger variety of schools nationwide.

RW: If somebody’s entering into this thinking that it’s going to cost less money, I think that’s a false assumption. In order to expand this, we would have to have the adequate financial resources. If it had not been for the additional money that we qualified for as being a Q-Comp school, there’s no way we could have put together the system that we have in place now in our school district.

So it’s not something for a school district to just sit down and say “Ok, we’re going to be in this” next year or even the following year. Every situation is different, but I would say by and large, it’s a process that takes time for people to understand, develop, and you kind of have to grow into it, too.

The biggest thing is, that the greatest benefit has been the deprivatization of the teaching practice. The way we structured it, telling teachers it is okay to take risks, the main thing that we’re looking at is student learning. Things are so much more focused now on student needs and student learning than they once were, in my earlier years of teaching. I think that is the most exciting thing about it.

And the whole motivation side of things, for teachers, the student achievement piece that we have and the goal and the teacher bonus and the rung movement, teachers are very cautious about “Where are we setting the bar this year to determine whether or not we’ve met our goal?” I’ve tried to keep that as I don’t honestly care how high that bar is set because what I believe and what we’ve seen to be true, is that you just come together, you’re looking at student learning, you’re making decisions based upon student needs, you’re doing the right things, you’re putting together effective plans for improvement, and good things are going to happen.

And it’s taken a lot of trust. I believe that to be true. At first, teachers were “Okay, umm, I hope you know what you’re talking about.” And my butt’s out there big time in terms of credibility with teachers in my building. I’m probably more worried about whether or not we hit our growth target than they are even, because I’m worried about what they’re going to think of me. And when we’re talking and we’re meeting and they’re coming clean. I said “Folks, the bonus is not a huge sum of money.” It’s not going to make or break them. It’s one component that they can count for their ladder movement, for their career movement.

And they look me straight in the eye and say, “No, it is not the money.” And I believe that to be true for all of them. It’s not the money. It’s their pride and what the public perception would be if it would get out there that we didn’t hit our goal. The whole dark side again, to leave you with this, is that if it takes us to a place where all we are doing is teaching to the test and what we’re testing, what’s being tested right now, kids need too much more. We’re teaching a lot of knowledge.

If we don’t get at some of these other 21st century skills and do a better job at integrating that into what we do, I’m fearful about where public education is going to be in this country and more importantly, where this country will be. I think we’ve got a system in place where we can get at those 21st century skills. We get smart about teaching. What we have to do to play the No Child Left Behind game and get efficient. And then get at the other things that matter as much or more.

Listen to the audio (mp3)

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