For Utah schools to improve, leaders have to begin thinking in new ways. These may include changing how teachers become certified, lengthening probationary periods for new teachers so the bad ones can be fired, and increasing the pay for teachers in rural and other hard-to-staff schools.
Those are some of the conclusions of a newly released research brief on how to improve teacher quality in Utah, published by the Utah Foundation. They deserve serious thought and discussion.
Underlying the study is a disturbing fact. The achievement records of U.S. students haven't improved much at all for several decades. This dismal record, which has caused U.S. students to sink in relation to their peers in other developed countries, has come despite increases in spending and laws such as No Child Left Behind.
The report notes that Utah's reading scores among fourth-graders, as measured by the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP, has remained virtually unchanged since 1992. A majority of the students continue to score below a passing level.
The problem is even worse when the differences between white and minority students is highlighted. The report cites statistics showing that the gap between white and Hispanic students in Utah in 2007 was about three grade levels.
Insanity has been defined as doing the same thing over and over again, expecting a different result. To improve education, leaders must come up with new, effective strategies. Voters in Utah have rejected vouchers as a potential solution. But relying on old methods won't work.
The report notes there is little evidence to show that having teachers with more than five years experience or who have completed graduate courses results in better student performance, even though both are tied to salary increases in Utah. Nor is there evidence showing a link between teacher certification and performance. Perhaps it's time to re-evaluate both, or to offer extra salary incentives for other things.
Utah already has begun to tie salary increases to merit, which is a positive step. But perhaps, as the report urges, financial incentives should be given to those who teach in low-income areas, tough neighborhoods or rural districts, as a way to close the racial achievement gap.
We would add to this research another little-discussed fact. There is no correlation nationally between per-pupil expenditures and student achievement. Utah tends to rank near the bottom in this category, but many states and the District of Columbia spend much more and accomplish much less.
Still, it is true that overall salary increases for teachers would have an effect on luring more bright people into the profession. So would a revamped education system that better educates students and makes teaching more rewarding in other ways.