I am sure if you ask Utah’s political leaders about the quality of education, they will most likely say that we provide good quality education with less spending than other states. However, the recent school rating’s report by Education Week, Education Weeks Quality Counts, January 10, 2013, casts a very dismal picture of the quality of education in Utah. Utah gets an over all K-12 achievement grade of D+, less than the US average. In 2011 only 43% of students were proficient in mathematics in 4th grade, and that declined to one-third in 8th grade. Only one-third of 4th grade and 8th grade students were proficient in reading, and even improvement in math and reading in these grades was below the national average during 2003-2011. This performance is dismal and reflects the value we place on public education in Utah.
Every Republican politician in Utah, including Governor Gary Herbert, talks about the value of education, but their words do not translate into any significant financing actions for education. Apparently education is at the bottom of their list of priorities. In the Education Week report on education Utah gets a grade of D, below the national average. I understand that there are many different reasons for this poor performance in Utah schools, for example, the lack of the following: prekindergarten public education for all children, tough academic standards, resources for teachers for innovations in teaching, independence of and peer support for teachers in experimenting new methods of teaching, well stocked libraries, parent support and rigorous discipline enforcement in classes. However, one of the most significant causes of poor performance is the quality of teachers and teaching.
There is an adage that ‘you get what you pay for’. If we do not hire teachers with competitive salaries to attract the best and the brightest motivated teachers, we will not get the quality education we wish for our children. A recent survey of 40,000 teachers nationwide, supported by Bill and Malinda Gates Foundation, points out some of factors enumerated above to promote quality education. But not much attention is paid to the quality of teachers and teaching in public school systems in the US, and especially in Utah. Besides hiring motivated and highly qualified teachers at competitive salaries, a rigorous and comprehensive teacher evaluation system with accountability, feedback, and merit rewards will go a long way to assure quality of teachers and teaching.
A recent empirical study published in American Economic Review, December 2012, by Eric Taylor and John Tyler finds, after controlling for other factors associated with teachers and students, that a teacher evaluation system is a very effective tool in improving teaching performance in public schools. Their study used a sample of mid-career math teachers in the Cincinnati Public School system. A well thought out teacher evaluation system with appropriate feedbacks significantly improved the math performance of children in the 4th and 8th grades. In addition, improvements in teaching skills and efforts are long lasting. Teachers’ evaluations must be as unbiased as possible and must include qualified peer evaluations as well as administrative evaluations with appropriate feedbacks. It must also be communicated to teachers that they will not be awarded tenure if they continuously receive unsatisfactory evaluations. Education Week report shows that Utah has a teacher evaluation system (but no information on the quality of the evaluation process); the report does indicate that Utah has no “Accountability for Effectiveness of Teacher Education Program” during 2011-12, and “Data System to Monitor Quality” in 2011.
It seems that Utah lacks an effective feedback system from peers and administrators, so that teachers could learn to improve their teaching. It is also not clear if serious attention is paid to tie the tenure system in Utah to the current evaluation system. I am not in favor of eliminating the tenure system. Tenure of teachers is more than a system of monetary rewards. Monetary rewards do not assure us independence of thought and knowledge creation from political interference and intimidation, thus diminishing the quality of education in schools.
An effective and unbiased evaluation system with appropriate feedbacks requires cooperation of administrators as well as teachers, without political interference. However, teachers’ evaluations, with feedbacks on teaching skills, effort and overall performance, and a reward system (monetary and non-monetary) provide a good recipe for success in teaching performance and student learning. More resources to the Utah school system must back this effort. However, elected politicians reflect the value of education of the electorate. Unless Utah voters elect politicians who not only talk about quality education but back it up by actions, Utah schools will not get more resources and thus will suffer with poor quality education.