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Pawlenty proposes 'super teachers'
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Gov. Tim Pawlenty and Education Commissioner Cheri Pierson Yecke announce a proposal to create a 'super teachers' program, to attract top people to teach in the state's toughest schools. (MPR Photo/Tim Pugmire)
Gov. Tim Pawlenty says he wants to pay some teachers up to $100,000 a year if they can help turn around struggling schools. Pawlenty announced his merit-pay "super teachers" proposal Wednesday as a way to help some of the state's most disadvantaged elementary schools recruit and retain quality teachers. He also wants to open up classrooms to more unlicensed experts who want to teach.

St. Paul, Minn. — Gov. Pawlenty says Minnesota has some of the best teachers in the country, but believes the profession is under stress. He says teacher turnover is too high, and many talented individuals won't even consider a teaching career. The Republican governor says a merit-based pay system could lure the best and brightest teachers to the schools that need the most help.

"We'd like to be able to offer these individuals performance-based bonuses and incentives in the range of $30,000 to $40,000 a year, based on various performance criteria," says Pawlenty. "We'd like, then, the school to be able to hold out that type of compensation package and level as a dramatic recruitment tool for teachers within the state, from other sites or from around the country."

Pawlenty's plan would allow select teachers to earn up to $100,000 a year. Teachers with advanced degrees and 20 or more years of service can now only reach about $70,000. The state average for teachers is just over $42,000.

We want people -- bright, engaged, skilled people from different walks of life -- who have substantive expertise to consider the teaching profession, perhaps even a second career or a career change.
- Gov. Tim Pawlenty

Pawlenty's plan would create the super teacher positions at five pilot elementary schools. Not all teachers at the schools would earn the bonuses. The governor estimates the annual cost at somewhere between $2.5 million and $5 million. He says the project would need to run at least five years to produce measurable results.

Pawlenty also wants the super teacher positions open to educated professionals who do not have a traditional teaching background or license. He says other states have already had success by offering alternative pathways to teaching.

"We want people -- bright, engaged, skilled people from different walks of life -- who have substantive expertise to consider the teaching profession, perhaps even a second career or a career change," says Pawlenty. "And we believe there are many extremely talented people who would take advantage of this pathway to the benefit of our schools' children and Minnesota schools, if this were open to them."

Teachers who participate in the pilot project would have to give up some traditional job security. Pawlenty says school principals should be able to hire, fire or assign teachers without regard to seniority.

The governor announced his initiative at Twin Cities Academy, a five-year-old St. Paul charter school that already offers performance bonuses of up to $2,500 to its teachers. Principal Liz Wynne says not having a union gives her more flexibility to run the school.

"If I see someone that does not get it and fit in, that just can't relate to kids and it's a struggle, I don't hold onto that. I think that's one of the differences between my school and the district. With the unions and tenure, you're locked in. I cut my losses and move on," says Wynne.

Union leaders are reacting cautiously to the governor's proposal. Judy Schaubach, president of Education Minnesota, says she supports the study of alternative compensation plans for teachers. But she thinks the decision to give up job protections should be reached at the local bargaining table. She says state officials should also be careful not to lower the standards for entering the teaching profession.

"We all know that it takes more than just knowing a subject matter in order to be successful in the classroom," says Schaubach. "The very students that we're trying to reach, to close the achievement gap, require multiple approaches in terms of knowing how to help them reach those levels. And that means knowing how to teach, just not the subject matter."

The super teachers would be the state's third pilot project on performance-based teacher pay. The Legislature approved the first effort two years ago with funding for five school districts. A Milkin Family Foundation grant is funding a second experiment. Pawlenty says he wants the results of all three studied to determine which approaches had the biggest impact on students.

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