Capitol Daily Memo: HB 115 – duct tape on a shanty

So the Utah House passed HB 115 today, 51-18-6. It’s a bill that attempts to improve on Utah public schools’ mentoring programs. Having completed a similar program when I went through the USOE’s Alternative Routes to Licensure program several years ago, I can say mentoring is a valuable tool for new teachers. However, it mostly depends on how good your mentor is and how dedicated to the program your principal is. This new legislation may or may not improve mentoring, and, by extension, teaching in the state of Utah.

Bills like this seem to miss the larger structural problems with public education. It’s like putting duct tape on a house built with the structural integrity of a shack in a Mumbai shantytown. The entire structure of public education is built on the wrong premises. 

I want to address just one of those faulty premises in this post: that teachers want to be rewarded for how much education they have and for how long they’ve been teaching. Wrong. Teachers are human beings, and human beings thrive on doing excellent work and being recognized for it. That’s built into our very natures. Need proof? Every successful industry in the world is based on this type of reward structure.

Sure, advanced degrees are needed in some professions, like medicine and aeronautics. But the advanced degree alone won’t increase job security in those professions as it does in public education. An advanced degree is a crude measure of teaching ability and effectiveness.

And in what other non-government, non-unionized industry does your salary automatically go up the longer you punch the clock? Essentially, a teacher can do a poor to mediocre job, stay under the radar and go about collecting his checks and building his pension as long as he has a pulse. The steps and lanes system encourages him to continue to be a teacher with its automatic raises. In any industry based on merit, the bad employee would either be fired or his salary would remain stagnant and he would probably leave to go work somewhere else.

A great teacher who works long hours, tailors instruction to meet the individual needs of her students, works closely with parents, gives struggling students extra help before or after school, prepares engaging and effective lesson plans, and continually strives to improve herself in the science and art of teaching is tied to the exact same pay structure as Mr. Mediocre.

This is why great teachers leave. This is why finding and keeping excellent teachers is such a challenge for administrators. Any industry that refuses to reward talented employees will shed talent faster than it can recruit it. Talent will not abide being rewarded the same as poor to mediocre performers. And pay for great teachers would be much higher if the steps/lanes system didn’t send so much money to bad and mediocre teachers.

Efforts are under way to try to tie a teacher’s talents, effectiveness and performance to his or her pay. Granted, this is a difficult task, but that shouldn’t stop public officials and educators from making these critical changes. I understand education differs uniquely from other industries. The answer lies in finding the right balance of many factors, such as student performance and improvement, co-worker and parent evaluations, administrator reviews, capacity of a student to improve learning, and other key factors included in the right mix and ratios.

It’s really a simple concept. Reward effective teachers. Focus help on poor and mediocre teachers. Until public education gets this right, no amount of duct tape will fundamentally improve the education of our children. And helping children learn and grow is the goal, isn’t it? The current pay structure makes you wonder …