Plan to give Utah’s top teachers bonuses may not be fair, auditors worry

Auditors shared their initial findings of the yet-to-launch program with lawmakers Tuesday

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Jeanine Ibarra teaches kindergarten at Heber Valley Elementary School in Heber City on Wednesday, July 5, 2023.

Legislative auditors are concerned Utah’s new teacher merit award program — created to offer bonuses to the state’s top-performing teachers — could present “objectivity” challenges.

Auditors presented their initial review of the program, which is set to launch in July, to state lawmakers Tuesday during a Legislative Audit Subcommittee meeting. The review aimed to offer recommendations to help ensure its effective implementation.

Passed this year under SB173, the “Market Informed Compensation for Teachers” program was created in an effort to increase teacher retention. While Utah ranks relatively high in that area, a December report from the University of Utah’s Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute indicated the state may struggle to keep early career teachers in the future.

Utah also currently struggles to effectively reward its best teachers, the audit states.

The merit award program intends to address that by giving top-performing teachers in the state bonuses: $10,000 for the top 5% of teachers; $5,000 for the next 6%-10%; and $2,000 for the next 11%-25%. If a teacher works at what the state considers a “high poverty school,” that bonus would be matched.

Discerning who “top-performing” teachers are would come through reviews that weigh factors including student achievement measures, professional evaluations and student and parent surveys, the law states. The Center for the School of the Future at Utah State University has been charged with managing that process and selecting award recipients.

But state auditors on Tuesday identified problems with using those factors to decide which teachers get merit pay. The main issue: Teacher evaluations differ from school to school, making it difficult to compare teachers at the statewide level and maintain objectivity, auditors said.

The absence of statewide teacher evaluations and parent survey data could also hinder USU’s ability to “confidently identify the state’s best teachers,” according to the review. That’s because the program is completely voluntary, so not all schools will submit data.

“Comparable and reliable data is especially important for USU’s role in verifying [school] submissions of their best teachers and comparing teachers across [schools],” the review states.

Utah’s largest teacher union has previously expressed concern that the new merit pay program could create unhealthy competition among teachers.

Renée Pinkney, president of the Utah Education Association, previously told The Salt Lake Tribune that while the program will increase pay for some, teaching is a collaborative field, and the way the new law structures bonuses could hinder collaboration and lead to a situation where certain teaching disciplines are perceived as more important than others.

“We don’t produce widgets,” Pinkney said. “It’s not about production and efficiencies. A market-based bonus system will give some educators the opportunity to earn more money. Some. But at what cost?”

According to the initial review, teacher competition is less of a concern to state auditors. That’s because Utah’s program sets a cap of the top 25% of all teachers statewide, not the top 25% at the local level, which should largely eliminate potential local competition.

“This reduces the incentive for teachers to compete with each other and does not provide a disincentive for collaboration,” the review states.

Pinkney did not immediately return a request for comment Tuesday afternoon about the audit’s findings.

Utah’s merit award program is modeled after Texas’ Teacher Incentive Allotment, which, according to the auditors’ review, has had a positive impact on teacher retention.

The review recommended that USU create policies addressing discrepancies in teacher evaluation systems and explore methods for statewide comparison of teacher effectiveness, given that not all schools will partake in the merit program.

The center should report its findings to the Education Interim Committee no later than October, the review states.