Lessons Learned And Next Steps: Osmond Discusses
Public Education Reform Bill Feedback
by Senator Aaron Osmond
November 14, 2011
Senator Aaron Osmond represents Utah Senate District 10. Osmond serves on the Utah Legislature’s Public Education Appropriations Subcommittee. He is sponsoring the Education Employee Reform Act during the Utah Legislature’s 2012 General Session. The bill eliminates the Orderly Termination Act and make changes to how educators are evaluated, paving the way for local districts, not the state, to set policies to manage their workforce, to eliminate so-called “teacher tenure” and implement performance pay. These concepts have the Utah State Board of Education’s support.
Senator Aaron Osmond, Utah Senate District 10
The current legislation I have proposed will be placed on temporary hold as I conduct additional meetings to determine what we can do to address these critical morale issues and then figure out how to modify, adjust or improve the current proposal based on the feedback we have received so far.
I would like to take this opportunity to share the lessons I have learned and the perspective I have gained from talking with our public education professionals across the state over the last several weeks.
I also want to sincerely thank the teachers, administrators and classified employees who took the time to come and meet with me or to write to me about their genuine concerns about the future of education in Utah. I believe I have met with well over 1,000 educators in person and received over 300 emails or communications during this same period. It has been a fast-paced and intense educational experience for me. Thank you for your time and support.
To say the least, the bill I proposed relative to Public Education Employment Reform initiated what I feel is a serious need for increased open dialog between the Legislature and educators in our state. I sincerely hope that this dialog has only just begun with these efforts. I am confident that if we can have more face-to-face, respectful and open discussion as I have experienced in the last few weeks, we will make rapid progress in addressing the very real challenges within public education.
Now to the lessons learned. When I first agreed to sponsor this legislation, I came to the table with many assumptions about the state of education in Utah. After these meetings, many of those assumptions have been significantly altered for the better. My views of the challenges in Education are now very clear to me and I am anxious to begin working on them with all of you.
Here are the key lessons I have learned and validated through many hours of conversation and dialog:
We have a Morale Problem
We have a serious morale problem in the public education system in Utah. All stakeholders must realize that our key education asset (our public education employees) feel discouraged, overworked, undervalued, and even demeaned to the point they now feel being associated with the profession of teaching in the state of Utah is itself an embarrassment. Until we face and validate this morale problem, we will never be able to discuss or move forward with serious education reform. As a CEO, I know that employee morale is the No. 1 impact to productivity, profitability and customer satisfaction. Therefore, from my perspective, public education employee morale should be our No. 1 focus for the foreseeable future.
Lack of Clear and Unified Vision for Education
Everywhere I went and in almost every conversation, I was asked, “What is the purpose of this legislation, how does it help public education, how does it help our kids?” The answer of local control and the desire to reward and recognize great teachers was not sufficient for them. They want to know what our vision is for the future of public education. They want to see a collective vision with all education stakeholders that can be used as a measuring stick for all legislation and policies that are proposed. Right now education employees feel that the Legislature is “winging it” and pursuing “personal agendas” rather than working together to articulate a clear vision and goal for education that stretches out decades, not just a few years. The Utah State Board of Education has established a vision and mission for Utah Public Education called “Promises to Keep.” As a State Legislature, we need to seriously look at this and follow suit.
Adversarial Relationship with the Legislature
Based on hundreds of comments, it is clear to me that there is a very real perception of an adversarial relationship with the Legislature. Since the voucher crisis, trust has been broken and in continual decline. Our public education professionals feel that the Legislature is targeting public education with a desire to see them pay for their unwillingness to support what the Legislature wants. They also feel that there is an active effort to privatize public education and dismantle our current system piece by piece until public education employees comply with what the Legislature wants. Most were surprised by my effort to meet with education professionals face to face to ask their opinion about potential legislation. Several teachers told me that they have not seen a legislator in their classrooms in their entire careers of more than 15, 25, and even 30 years. The time has come for the Legislature to reengage with public education, conduct meaningful visits to classrooms, and understand what is really happening in those classrooms. No real reform can happen until this type of adversarial relationship is removed. We need to fix this now.
Lack of Support for New Teachers
Due to the morale issues we face in public education, the lack of induction support and professional development resources, as well as the other challenges listed below, we are now losing our new teachers at a rapid rate. I understand that we lose 45 percent or more of our new teachers within their first three years in the system. This is directly associated with the challenge of the role, not just because we have young female teachers leaving the system when their husbands graduate from school and take jobs out of the area. Even more serious, our current teachers in general do not encourage or recruit potential teachers into the system. Instead, they are discouraging potential teachers from considering the profession. Unless we step up to this reality, we are facing a potential crisis in our ability to staff our public education system over the next decade.
Educators tired of being the Enemy
Educators feel that they have become the scapegoat and even the enemy of student performance in public education. They feel they are being blamed by the Legislature as the core reason for the achievement problems of our children in the state. While they know they can do better and they genuinely want to improve, they are so discouraged that we as a Legislature, and even as the public, refuse to meaningfully consider the impact of the serious social problems affecting performance in the classroom, such as disintegration of the family, lack of parental support or involvement, socio-economic challenges, special needs issues (like autism), English as a second language, etc. Our kids are facing huge challenges and bring these challenges with them into the classroom. Teachers need our help to face these challenges.
Classroom Sizes are an Issue
We cannot pretend or ignore that classroom sizes do impact our teachers’ abilities to impact our students for good. We cannot continue to pretend that somehow our great teachers can just compensate for this challenge without impacting their effectiveness. When you consider the challenges listed above and add to that large classroom sizes, it takes everything a teacher has to just maintain order in a classroom, let alone connect with a child and help them learn. This is even more important in the early years (K-3) as these students are developing their capacity and skill to learn. Teachers are exhausted and overwhelmed and we need to figure out a solution for this challenge over time.
Between federal, state and district requirements, we are now overloading our educational system with testing and assessment to the point that our teachers feel like all they do is prepare for and give assessments and tests. They feel they spend so much time in these efforts (and many hours in preparation work) that they are not able to spend the quality time that they want to give actually teaching and instructing our children.
Lack of Parental and Student Respect
Teachers feel that the pendulum of respect has swung so far away from the teachers that neither parents nor students respect their role or their decisions. They feel continually second-guessed and treated as though their professional opinion about a child’s educational status, needs, or challenges are no longer valued. When teachers push back or hold students accountable they are accused of being unprofessional or unfair. Sometimes their own administrators do not support them and put parent perspectives and demands above that of the teacher. This has a demoralizing and de-motivating effect on our teachers.
It was clear that performance pay is viewed more as a negative reinforcement than an incentive tool. All pointed out to me that there is little to no research in the United State that indicates the use of merit or performance pay works to improve student performance within public education (or any education setting). Teachers feel such models would reinforce competition between teachers and significantly negatively impact the collaborative teaching model they feel works so effectively in education. All felt any bonus or performance pay would need to be based on student progress, which is not always possible to measure in every topic. Special needs teachers were especially concerned about how such a model would work when progress is so challenging to measure.
View of Orderly Termination and Due Process
Most teachers (and some administrators) feel the current Orderly Termination law is both fair and effective. They reject the idea that we can’t get rid of bad teachers. In fact, many teachers feel that we, as education stakeholders, need to find ways to more effectively hold administration accountable to actually use the system to evaluate, remediate or remove ineffective teachers. Although administrators concurred that the system can work, many administrators feel the process needs to be improved and simplified. It was clear to me we can and should find ways to make the process more efficient and consistent across the state to address the perception that it is hard to remediate or let go of bad teachers. I would also note that some administrators and HR directors were concerned the removal of our state Orderly Termination law could cause a myriad of legal battles and unemployment claims/liabilities that would exceed the benefit of moving to local control under the proposed changes. We need to do more research in this area and avoid the law of unintended consequences.
Contracts versus Expectation of Continued Employment
Teachers and most administrators who provided me feedback felt moving to a contract model at this time could be the proverbial “straw that breaks the camel’s back” in public education morale. Teachers are greatly concerned that such a model would lead to higher anxiety for teachers and other employees who feared that mere personality differences and/or the opportunity to remove more experienced (and therefore more expensive) employees would be the natural result at the end of a contract. Teachers do not accept that they have a guarantee of continued employment. They feel that what they have is a guarantee of “due process.” Some administrators felt the contract model was compelling and could help them manage a more productive relationship with their employees, but they too recognized the risks. More research is required here as well.
Overall Compensation and Funding for Growth
Every person in public education who spoke with me expressed their frustration that we as a Legislature have continually cut back funding resources for education. They point to a continual trend to decrease and de-fund public education (both for economic reasons and trade-offs for other priorities). They feel the time has come that we seriously evaluate and understand the impact of not properly funding growth, not providing professional development support or needed classroom resources. Teachers are so tired of a growing expectation that they must volunteer 10 to 15 hours a week for no additional pay (just to get the preparation and paperwork done) as well as the expectation that they must cover the cost of needed supplies and materials for the classroom that the state won’t, or can’t, cover.
That summarizes the feedback that I have heard so far. We now need to find meaningful real-world solutions to address these issues (not just rhetoric). There are some areas where I feel that the perception and emotion of the issues are greater than logic and reality of the problems. However, until we deal with the emotion, the feelings and distrust, we will not make any progress toward education reform or improvement in our state (or at least it will continue to be very slow).
Now that I have a clearer understanding of the problems we face in public education, it is time to meet with key peers in the Utah State Legislature, the Utah State Board of Education and leadership in the Utah Education Association and other state leaders to determine our next steps.
As such, the current legislation I have proposed will be placed on temporary hold as I conduct additional meetings to determine what we can do to address these critical morale issues and then figure out how to modify, adjust or improve the current proposal based on the feedback we have received so far.
As stakeholders in Public Education, we all need to put our differences and past violations of trust behind us, focus on what we have in common and work together to find solutions to better fund and support our education professionals. If we do this, I am confident we will achieve our goal to provide a quality education for every child in the state of Utah.
Thank you to all who have commented and voiced their opinions over the last few weeks. I appreciate your support and ideas and look forward to solving these challenges with you!