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Waseca schools break new ground in teacher pay
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Mary Smith reads with fourth grade students at Waseca Central Intermediate School. (MPR Photo/Tim Pugmire)
A group of state legislators travels to south-central Minnesota on Tuesday to see how a small school district is changing the way its teachers get paid. Members of the House Education Policy and Education Finance committees will be in Waseca, where the teachers could soon earn bonuses based on their classroom performance. Gov. Tim Pawlenty is pushing such incentives as the centerpiece of his education agenda. For teachers and administrators in Waseca, the new system has been a slow evolution.

Waseca, Minn. — Teachers in Waseca are learning how to do their jobs better. They're getting extra training and mentoring support that should in theory result in higher student test scores. If it works, they'll also be in line for fatter paychecks later this year. Superintendent James Schmitt says the new approach is having an impact.

"I've had some teachers who've been teaching for 30 years that are pretty excited about the program," Schmitt said. "So for some of them it's gotten the juices flowing again. I'm not saying that they were complacent or bad before, but it's helped maintain that level and even add a little more to it."

Waseca is one of two Minnesota school districts participating in the Teacher Advancement Program (TAP). It's a nationwide initiative by the Milken Family Foundation to attract and retain quality teachers to the profession. The district is getting $2.6 million from a federal grant for a two-year experiment.

Under the program, teachers face a rigorous evaluation of their instruction and are held accountable for student performance. They also meet regularly with colleagues to discuss ways to improve.

Michelle Krell is one of seven "master teachers" who oversee the program in Waseca. Krell says teachers are slowly warming to the process.

"Once teachers have seen the change in their kids, that's facilitating a lot more buy in I think as they go along," Krell said. "They can see how their collaborative efforts have changed their kids."

Krell has been a teacher for 13 years. Her salary, like others, was predictably linked to years on the job and level of professional education. Krell says that traditional system, known as "steps and lanes," spurred her to earn a master's degree and an administrative license in order to boost her salary. She likes the idea of a system that instead rewards performance.

"Just because somebody gets a lot of education doesn't mean that their instruction gets better," Krell said. "A lot of times it does, because you've spent time in classes learning new strategies and things like that. But this method provides very focused improvement on instruction."

Mary Smith has been teaching fourth grade for 24 years. Her experience showed as she confidently kept her students' attention during a recent discussion of cowboys and cattle drives. Smith says the training aspects of the TAP program have helped her improve her students writing skills and vocabulary. Still, she has mixed feelings about the new system.

"I've been reluctant to feel like I need to be motivated by money to do my best work," Smith said. "And so in that way I've been skeptical. But I do feel like I'm learning a lot this year. I do feel like I'm becoming more conscious of what I'm doing for the kids and doing the right things for the kids."

Smith and her colleagues in Waseca could earn bonuses this year that will average about $3,000. Mentor teachers get an extra $5,000. Master teachers earn $8,000. They also risk nothing. The traditional steps and lanes system remains intact for all teachers during the two-year experiment.

Superintendent James Schmitt says the switch to alternative compensation is a slow journey, but one he's willing to take

"I think alternative comp is going to be pushed harder and harder and harder by the politicians, by the public," Schmitt said. "And in my opinion, you either need to be willing to help chart that course of where that's going to go, or sit back and have it done to you. And in Waseca, we'd rather be on the front end helping chart that course."

The proposal unveiled last month by Gov. Pawlenty would establish a $60 million pool to help more Minnesota school districts move to performance-based pay. Under the plan, districts chosen for the funding would also have to abandon the current steps and lanes system.