In our opinion: One small step

Published: Saturday, Feb. 18 2012 12:00 a.m. MST

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For years, Utah lawmakers have been flirting with ways to make public education more accountable for the way it prepares students for the real world, only to run into obstacles. Accountability is important in a service such as education, which operates as a publicly funded monopoly free from normal market pressures. And yet there are many components to that service, as well as a powerful union that stands up for its interests.

Sen. Aaron Osmond, R-South Jordan, is to be commended for sponsoring a bill that takes some important steps toward imposing an accountability that focuses on school administrators as much as on teachers, and that ties employee evaluations directly to compensation.

He also is to be commended for holding several open houses with school teachers statewide and listening to their concerns. What he discovered is that teacher morale is low. Part of this may be due to past legislative efforts that have been perceived as ignoring their concerns. We suspect part of it also has to do with a system that imposes many requirements on them while inhibiting their ability to innovate when confronting problems. Lawmakers themselves bear much responsibility for this.

As a result of his research, Osmond has gone from publicly endorsing a plan to eliminate career teaching positions and instituting strict performance pay to one that ties a percentage of a school principal's pay to how well his or her school performs. His bill, SB64, also would make it easier to fire teachers who perform poorly, setting in place a 120-day process for them to improve or be terminated. Teachers who receive a poor performance evaluation would receive no salary increase.

The bill has been endorsed by both the Utah Education Association and the State Board of Education. Education leaders have said principals need to be more accountable and that the education establishment from the top down agrees with the idea that incompetent teachers should not be teaching.

The bill, then, represents a step toward a more responsive public education system in Utah, but one step only. Improving education here and nationwide likely will involve multi-faceted changes that may not be so well-received by all sides.

Among the bill's weaknesses is that it would tie only 15 percent of a principal's salary to performance. Why not make administrators as accountable as teachers, who stand to lose their entire pay raise if that same principal issues a poor evaluation?

Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper, has said he would like to see a concerted effort to recruit business leaders to run for school board positions. Stephenson's argument is that school boards are dominated by educators who lack the experience necessary to manage multi-million dollar budgets the way a business leader could. The result is, as he puts it, a system that "rubber stamps the status quo."

Stephenson's point is one we've been trying to make for years — that tweaking the status quo in public education can result only in tiny improvements. We're still waiting for the type of leadership that does more than flirt with accountability — one that would embrace real top-down reforms that radically alter relationships among parents, students, teachers and administrators and that would make meaningful educational choices a part of accountability.

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