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State law requires annual evaluations for public-school teachers

Minnesota public school teachers will undergo annual evaluations under legislation that passed out of the special session last week.

It's the first time the state has mandated teacher evaluation system.

Many districts such as Rochester already require regular evaluations of teachers, but advocates believe the new law will add new rigor to the process. Another, more controversial component is a requirement that 35 percent of the evaluation be based on student test scores.

The mandate gives districts a measure of local control by allowing teachers and school boards to develop their own evaluation process, but in the event that a system can't be agreed upon, the state would be allowed to impose a default plan on districts.

Kit Hawkins, president of the Rochester Education Association teachers union, said the law builds upon efforts and practices that have been ongoing in the district for years. Rochester currently requires that new teachers undergo annual evaluations in each of their first three years. After that, a teacher under a "continuing contract" is assessed every third year.

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"In Rochester, we have a plan in place," Hawkins said. "It's basically how we might enhance our current program."

It is unclear how many districts have policies requiring regular teacher evaluations. During the debate, legislators received letters from teachers who said that they hadn't been evaluated in years. The law, in that sense, provides a degree of uniformity that the state has lacked.

The state teachers union, Education Minnesota, says it welcomes regular evaluations, but it has objected to the mandate tying 35 percent of the evaluation to test scores, a figure critics say is arbitrary. Republican legislators, in fact, had considered raising that percentage to as high as 50 percent.

"That number was kind of pulled out of the sky. There is no research that 35 percent is an appropriate percent," said Rep. Kim Norton, a Rochester Democrat who sits on a House committee on education. "That was added in conference committee."

Rochester public schools spokeswoman Jennifer Pozanc said district officials haven't yet had a chance to respond to the mandate. Developing new evaluation policies would involve school principals and the district's new human-resources director, Judy McDonald, whose first day on the job is today.

Norton described the law as a "hybrid." Many of the provisions came from Rep. Kathy Brynaert, a Mankato Democrat, but Republican legislators successfully pushed for student assessments to be part of the evaluation process. Such policies are also supported by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush's Foundation for Education Excellence and American Legislative Exchange Council.

While viewing it as opportunity to enhance Rochester's system, Hawkins said she was concerned about the extra costs districts will absorb. She predicted districts would have to spend money on training teachers and administrators to develop an effective evaluation.

But districts are dealing with tight budgets. In a bit of budgetary juggling, the state is withholding 40 percent of what it owes districts this year to help it pay for other programs, providing fresh budgetary challenges for schools.

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