Will new education law make a difference in the classroom?

Published: Tuesday, March 27 2012 8:57 p.m. MDT

Gov. Gary R. Herbert greets students after signing education bills during a ceremony at Falcon Ridge Elementary School in West Jordan, Tuesday, March 27, 2012.

Ravell Call, Deseret News

Related story: Parents more important to test scores than teachers, study says

SALT LAKE CITY — Gov. Gary Herbert on Tuesday came to an elementary school to sign into law an education reform bill that passed both houses of the Legislature with near-unanimous support, garnered widespread acclaim from educators and was described by some as a groundbreaking piece of legislation.

The question that remains: Will it actually do anything to improve education in Utah?

The new law seeks to eliminate inconsistencies in school employee evaluations by establishing statewide teaching standards. It ties educator salaries to the evaluation and shortens the time to improve performance before cutting ties with underperforming teachers and administrators.

The bill was sponsored by first-year state Sen. Aaron Osmond, R-South Jordan, and represents months of collaboration between lawmakers and members of the education community. But some groups said Osmond's bill did not go far enough and they criticize him for backing away from tougher standards tied more directly to classroom performance.

Parents for Choice in Education, a nonprofit group dedicated to education choice and accountability, withheld support for the bill, claiming it empowers collective bargaining more than ensuring a quality teacher for every student. Executive Director Judi Clark called the bill "dangerous" and said under the new law teachers are not held adequately responsible for the academic achievement of their students.

Osmond counters that student achievement does not tell the whole story and that much like in business, results are better achieved by empowering leadership than punishing employees. The bill began as an effort to target teacher performance but the focus shifted to administrators after conversations with teachers and other educators.

"For years we've gone backwards," Osmond said. "Do you look at employees to solve a problem? No, you look at leadership."

Under the new law, all public education employees will undergo an annual evaluation — the basis for employment decisions — with teachers being ranked on a one to four scale. Those rankings will be made public in a report by the office of education showing the number, but not names, of underperforming teachers in each district and make administrators responsible for honestly evaluating their staff.

State Superintendent Larry Shumway listed the transparency of that report and the streamlined remediation period — a period of 120 days — as the key differences between the new law and the policies it replaces. He said it will be clear if administrators are not adequately evaluating their staff if overwhelming numbers of teachers receive the highest, or lowest, rankings. 

"By and large we have excellent teachers," Shumway said. "But we do want to be able to help underperforming teachers improve, or move on."

Only teachers who achieve the top two performance levels will be eligible to receive scheduled raises, commonly known as "steps and lanes." The bill originally called for an educator's salary to be fully tied to performance.

The specific standards of the evaluations will be determined by the State Office of Education but by law they must include multiple components, such as classroom observation, parent feedback and student achievement data. The actual mechanism of conducting the evaluations will be implemented at the local level by the school board and a committee of parents, teachers and administrators.

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