Will new education law make a difference in the classroom?

Published: Tuesday, March 27 2012 8:00 p.m. MDT

Before terminating the contract of an unsatisfactory employee, a district must develop a plan of assistance to improve the teacher's performance and implement a 120-day period for remediation. At the end of that period, the employee's contract can be terminated if improvement has not been demonstrated. If a teacher repeats a poor performance evaluation, the contract can be terminated without a 120-day remediation period.

The current system requires an evaluation and remediation process, but with inconsistent evaluation practices, multiple levels of review and an ambiguously defined window for due process, remediation and termination can often drag on for years.

"We can not have any more two- or three-year remediations," Osmond said. "It clarifies for administrators and it clarifies for teachers what the expectations are."

Shumway said there was a push from some groups in the early stages of the bill to do away with contracts in favor of an "at will" status where employment can be terminated at any time without liability. He said the bill strikes a balance between giving educators a reasonable amount of security in their jobs without embedding bad teachers in the system.

"I think it's important that teachers have some status in their job and some expectation of continued employment," he said.

Administrators will receive a more extensive annual evaluation, which beyond their performance takes into account student progress indicators at their school, and parent and community feedback. They are also evaluated on the degree to which they evaluate their staff. That chain of accountability, Osmond said, continues up the district ladder until it arrives before local school board members, who hold elected office and answer to the voting public.

"I like that system," Osmond said. "I like that we have elected officials at both the local and state level."

Salary increases for administrators will be based on their annual evaluations until 15 percent of salary compensation is impacted as performance-pay. Osmond said he pushed for 35 percent of salary, but the final amount is the result of compromise with education stakeholders.

While the performance standards will be established by the state office, he said the majority of power to manage the workforce will remain at the local level.

Sharon Gallagher-Fishbaugh, president of the Utah Education Association objected to the sentiment some hold that unions protect bad teachers, saying "nothing could be farther from the truth." She said if teachers aren't willing to improve in areas where they are deficient then they don't belong in the classroom.

However, she said problems arise when a teacher's performance is determined to be unsatisfactory without any classroom observation or a reliable evaluation. She said the new law holds everyone, teachers and administrators included, to a higher standard.

"If someone's going to tell us we're good or we're not good, they better have seen us," she said. "This is a big, huge step forward."

Critics, however, point to the changes that Osmond made after meeting with education stakeholders as evidence that the freshman senator was influenced to uphold the status quo.

Clark, of Parents for Choice in Education, said a statewide, uniform evaluation system is unnecessary since the skills required to teach in Ogden or Salt Lake City are not the same as more rural districts. While the bill calls for student achievement to be a component of evaluations, Clark would prefer those standards to be better defined and to hold a greater sway over a teacher's salary — not just their annual raise.

Shumway said that only time will tell how effective the bill is, but he said it is a step in the right direction.

"I don't think I or the board would've supported this bill if we didn't think it would make a difference," he said.

Osmond said the focus of the bill was moved from academic measurements because of the factors that are beyond a teacher's control, such as students with special needs or who have a contrarian attitude to education.

Clark, however, said Utah needs a system that rewards the teachers who are most effective at reaching their students.

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