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.

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.

"It's very easy to measure progress regardless of a student's obstacles," she said.

Osmond was elected to the state Senate in 2011 during a special election and ran on a platform of education reform. He made the outline for SB64 public in October and said he was overwhelmed by the "flood of negativity" he received.

He said he was accused of being a "typical Republican idiot," rushing to legislate a system he didn't understand. He took the criticism to heart and began a tour of Utah schools with Shumway, logging more than 40 hours of classroom observations and talking with hundreds of teachers and parents.

"I was pretty much the vent of everything they hate about the Legislature," he said. "It was respectful, but it was angry."

After educating himself on Utah education, Osmond posted an essay titled "Lessons Learned and Next Steps" on the State Board of Education website and presented a revised version of his bill outline to the Interim Education Committee at the Legislature.

"And wow, did it tick off my colleagues," he said.

Osmond was told he was empowering the unions, protecting bad teachers and undoing years of educational choice reform. Eventually the emotions calmed down and he was able to gather the education stakeholders around a table to work on SB64.

Gallagher-Fishbaugh said the various groups sometimes disagreed on the "how" but never the "what" of ensuring that Utah students have quality educators. She dismissed criticisms that Osmond kowtowed to the unions, saying that the sentiment is nothing but negative and superficial rhetoric. 

"People that spew that kind of stuff aren't offering solutions," she said.

Shumway said he and Osmond listened to people's concerns and he is disappointed that some believe compromise is a "dirty word" and if an agreement is reached then someone must have caved to pressure.

"I think that's a reflection of a refusal to think that we can find progress and consensus," Shumway said.

Osmond said that while the bill changed dramatically from its inception, it still accomplishes his key goals of empowering districts at the local level and holding educators accountable. He said compromise was necessary and he's glad he made the shift away from a full-scale performance-pay shift to the rating system.

"It would have been a revolt," he said. "It would have blown up the relationship between the Legislature and public education."

The terms of the new law will be rolled out over the course of the next few years with the full implementation scheduled to occur by the 2015-2016 academic year.

E-mail: benwood@desnews.com

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