Despite panicked opponents' fears of tying teacher pay to performance, Utah Senate Bill 67 seems a sensible, manageable attempt to improve public schools. Challenges for public education will remain, but SB 67 from Sen. J. Stuart Adams of Layton looks like a step in the right direction.
The bill requires that performance evaluations be used when setting compensation for teachers. Teachers would be graded at one of four levels. To preserve confidentiality, each school would be required to report how many teachers fall into each level, but not their names.
Starting in the 2014-2015 school year, local school boards would set up performance-based salary schedules that would be published on the State Board of Education's website. Raises could not be given to teachers in the lower two categories. Teachers in the No. 1 achievement slot could be given raises. Those ranked at No. 2 could receive smaller increases.
Flexibility is one strong point of SB 67. A bonus (or "salary supplement" as the bill calls it) can be given to a teacher at a school where the district has difficulty recruiting, or to a teacher with special expertise, or in cases where a teacher has additional academic responsibilities.
A larger consideration is the six-year phase-out of compensation that has long been based on years of experience, degree earned or course credits. Such measures are how teachers have gotten ahead in their careers.
The switch to merit pay may look like a sea change to teachers, one that will not only affect individuals but also teaching degree programs at universities. But public education is not going to collapse. The institution and the people involved, including students, are not that brittle.
The bill's rules allow local adaptation in the crafting of evaluations. The process doesn't sound onerous, but change may be hard for some to accept. The message for them is "Get over it." This is how the private sector works, and education should be no different.
At least 60 percent of a teacher's evaluation is to be based on "student learning growth," with not more than 40 percent based on meeting "teacher effectiveness standards." The definitions of those terms will be debated, but note that SB 67 does not lay down absolute performance measurements, such as test score gains. This should allay some of the fears of educators who know that teacher performance is only one of many factors that produce student achievement.
Most changes the bill proposes would happen in the background, unnoticed by parents and students.
The biggest difference is likely to be in how teachers view their careers: They would be graded, and that may be an uncomfortable sensation for some. But SB 67 may benefit many teachers through feedback they may not be getting now. Just as in the private sector, performance evaluations are tools for improvement, and improvement tends to yield greater job satisfaction.
On the other hand, it has long been said that nobody goes into teaching for the money -- and money is the big incentive in SB 67. Yet, a new system that pays more for performance may not actually yield big achievement gains across Utah public schools. That's still OK because it's just the right basis for paying people.
Utah's legislators should give SB 67 a chance. It will be tempting to frame the bill as a struggle between two groups -- Parents for Choice in Education, which claims it initiated the bill, and the Utah Education Association, which prefers its own bill, SB 64 -- and pick a side without bothering to consider the merits.
One thing for sure, teachers should embrace change and make the best of it. The days of essentially telling legislators to butt out, to let teachers do their jobs, as UEA president Sharon Gallagher-Fishbaugh did last week, are gone.