Watch and see

Today’s Deseret News ran an article about the education reform bill recently passed by the Utah legislature. In case you missed the lead paragraphs:

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?

This bill began life as a much more radical reform that essentially ended teacher tenure (okay, assumption of continued employment) in Utah. When the inevitable uproar ensued, sponsor Senator Aaron Osmond took a step that I admire: He went out and met with teachers and other interested groups, and asked what reforms they’d like to see enacted. This new law is the result.

As the Deseret News explains,

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.

So, to repeat the headline question, will this make a difference in the classroom?

We don’t know. So much depends on how well the evaluations are designed and how thoroughly they are pursued; how seriously administrators respond to new requirements and incentives; and how vigorously parents respond to new information about underperforming teachers. Precisely because this new law was negotiated with teachers’ representatives, I hope it makes a big difference – because I think transformation has to begin with teacher buy-in.

Now that I’ve said this, I’ll still probably generate some negative comments with the following observation: One test of whether the new law makes a difference will be whether whether Utah moves from the very bottom of the pack in terms of the percent of “tenured” (U.S. Department of Education term, not mine) teachers whose contracts or terminated.

I cited this article from the Salt Lake Tribune in my blog before, but here it is again:

“In a survey of 12 school districts in Colorado, Ohio, Arkansas and Illinois, The New Teacher Project found that 99 percent of teachers are deemed “satisfactory” on their final exams. And in Utah’s largest districts, fewer than 1 percent of teachers are dismissed each year for poor performance.”

Don’t misunderstand me. I’m not advocating a bell curve approach where the bottom 5% is automatically axed. And I like the law’s provision that remediation efforts precede termination. But realistically, a stricter teacher evaluation regime and expedited teacher termination track should lead to at least a few more pink slips.

So let’s watch and see.



  1. Sheryl

    There are so many factors that determine a poorly performing teacher being kept on. If I’m not mistaken there is already a remediation process in place, at least our district has one. If you have an administrator that doesn’t want to be bothered or has friends they don’t want to get rid of thus gives everyone a “satisfactory” on evaluations who will catch that? Is the state going to monitor all schools or just the under-performing? What are the requirements for parental involvement? I agree that we need a better system to have better teachers in our schools, but where are the standards for getting certified? I’ve seen teachers who couldn’t read, speak or write well enough to pass a high school test and so I wonder how they made it into the classroom? Are our certification requirements high enough on the basics? Just some things to think about.

  2. Fred 44


    Not sure I see why success of this bill will be measured in any way by a change in the number of pink slips given to teachers in Utah compared to other states. Teachers fired each year in Utah has zero correlation with the quality of education students are receiving. It could be that Utah has better teachers overall than other states so that is why fewer teachers are being fired in Utah. It could be that administrators are not doing there jobs and are allowing teachers to continue to be employed who shouldn’t be. It could be a combination of both. To make a direct connection between the number of teachers given a pink slip and effectiveness of an evaluation system is a misinterpretation of a single statistic that really provides nothing more than the number of teachers fired in a given year in each state.

    It would be my hope and expectation that this law will result in better instruction and greater learning. In terms of what it will do to the number of teachers receiving pink slips, if administrators do their jobs, the number of teachers fired will be the number that it should be. It may go up, but it also may go down. We may find that with quality evaluation and support to help teachers improve that there will be fewer not more pink slips.

    To often we assume that leadership in education means to pass out pink slips. Leadership in education means to go beyond the symptoms and find the causes. Leaders avoid the temptation for quick fixes. Real leaders work diligently to create long term sustainable solutions. We have serious problems in our educational system, this law has opened the door for the first time in this state to a meaningful dialogue about real sustainable solutions that all the stakeholders can agree on. Hopefully this is a first step in creating a discussion that will lead us to become the model education system not only in the country, but in the world.

    • Mary McConnell

      Of course pink slips shouldn’t be the sole, or even a major, measure of success. Who could argue that our shared goal is better student learning.

      But – given that the new law supposedly streamlines the review and termination process and assigns administrators more accountability and incentives, it would be odd if no housecleaning took place . . . especially at first.

      Back in June I posted a New York Times article about Montgomery County, Maryland’s teacher evaluation reforms – reforms enacted with teacher cooperation and indeed teacher leadership. Here’s the most relevant paragraph:

      “So yesterday’s New York Times article about the Peer Assistance and Review program in the high-performing Montgomery County, Maryland school district caught my eye. The article doesn’t provide a lot of detail about how the peer review system works in practice; I’d love to know more. Still, this information impressed me: “‘In the 11 years since PAR began, the panels have voted to fire 200 teachers, and 300 more have left rather than go through the PAR process, said Jerry D. Weast, the superintendent of the Montgomery County system, which enrolls 145,000 students, one-third of them from low-income families. In the 10 years before PAR, he said, five teachers were fired. “It took three to five years to build the trust to get PAR in place,” he explained. “Teachers had to see we weren’t playing gotcha.’”

      This strikes me as in keeping with the spirit of the new law and your comments . . . but note that it also lends support to my point about pink slips.

      The earlier blog posting (which includes a link to the New York Times article) is

  3. Howard Beale

    Here’s the deal.

    It’s really hard to judge teaching in Utah’s schools. The classes are too large, too many students in many of our secondary teachers don’t attend class regularly. Not all teachers have access to technology or even textbooks. Many Administrators need to first take control of their halls. Schools need to be funded better. Judging any teacher, I’m sorry to say this Mary, with 40 plus students in their classroom without enough texts for their students isn’t fair. When a class gets so large managing becomes the real issue and teaching becomes difficult. Give every teacher in Utah a reasonably sized class with the tools to succeed then I think it might be fair to evaluate teachers under this new system. Utah can’t keep educating on the cheap and expect good things. Our students grow more challenging each day, our schools grow more diverse each day. There needs to be some systematic changes in these areas as well as STUDENT and PARENT accountability. You can’t expect firing teachers will make things better. It won’t…

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