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Editorial: Teacher-bonus bill will be a test-based test

First Published      Last Updated Mar 11 2017 09:23 am

While most Utah teachers will slog on with basically the same money as always after this year's legislative session, a few of them will have the chance to hit a jackpot.

Legislators passed House Bill 212, which will pay an extra $5,000 to teachers who show both an ability to raise test scores and a willingness to work in the most challenging neighborhood schools.

The parameters are narrowly defined to include only English, math and science teachers in the middle-school grades at certain schools with larger numbers of high-risk students. Only about 100 teachers will qualify for the money. With roughly 20,000 schoolteachers in Utah, this is more experiment than solution.




It is experimental for a couple of reasons. First, it's merit pay. Much has been said of Utah's inability to keep teachers; almost half are gone in the first five years. Low salaries get a lot of the blame, as they should, but less gets said about the fact that both average and great teachers are paid the same after five years.

Being a public-school teacher requires a college education, and teachers are right to demand to be treated like engineers, lawyers and other college-educated professionals. But not many professional occupations are ruled by collective bargaining agreements that fix compensation to years of experience. (The Utah Education Association opposed HB212 as divisive, but merit-based pay hasn't turned people in other professions against each other.)

The other experimental part of the bill is that it puts a financial incentive on "teaching to the test." Utah has been all over the map on school testing in recent years. We've required tests, then let parents opt their children out. We've used test scores to evaluate teachers, and then specifically prohibited that. We've set up school grades based off test scores, and now we're looking at dumping the grading system.

The reality is that there will always be tests, and there will always be decisions made at least in part on the results of those tests. Accountability can't be reduced to a number, but neither can a valid number be ignored. It's a data-driven world.

Even the people behind the Our Schools Now initiative, who want to raise $750 million in new income-tax money for schools, recognize accountability is part of selling the tax increase to the public. Their current proposal calls for distributing that money not through the regular method but instead through a system that considers average test score improvement.

Legislators left for another day the challenge of how to raise more money for the lowest-funded school system in the 50 states. But they did bite off an interesting test on teacher motivation and accountability. The results and ramifications of HB212 will be worth watching.

 

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