August 3, 2010

When Florida public schools open for a new school year this month, students and teachers will take up where they left off last May.  But new policies now being put into place will create big changes in the next few years.  Among them:  how subjects are taught, which standardized tests students take, and how teachers are evaluated and paid.

Two developments last week moved Florida further along its decade-long education accountability path, as discussed in FCFEP's education report, "Florida's Latest Strategy for Improving Schools Promises More of the Same -- and Uncertain Results."

First, the Florida Board of Education formally adopted the new national voluntary Common Core State Standards, a set of expectations for student learning in math and English/language arts that eventually will replace the Sunshine State Standards.  New assessments ultimately will follow, replacing the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT).

Secondly, of more immediate concern, Florida was named one of 19 finalists in the competition to receive a share of federal Race to the Top education reform funds.  If Florida is among the winners announced about September 1, the state Department of Education (DOE) and local school districts would split as much as $700 million over four years to implement a variety of “reforms,” including merit pay for teachers.

Merit pay has been controversial for decades.  Advocates contend that there’s no evidence that the current pay system – based on years of service and the degree(s) earned by the teacher – correlates with student learning.  They say merit pay will reward the best teachers and weed out others.

Opponents object to tying salaries too much to the achievement level of students of widely varying abilities, family background and support, and previous educational experiences. Moreover, most studies find no conclusive evidence linking existing merit-pay plans with higher student achievement.

Florida already has a merit-pay law already on the books, although it’s not proven effective.  Adopted by the legislature in 2001 and revised in 2007, it created what Florida DOE calls “the most recent rendition” of teacher pay-for-performance efforts in Florida.  DOE admits that difficulties in linking student test data with teachers – particularly for teachers who don’t teach subjects and grades where the FCAT is required – have limited the impact of the current merit-pay requirement.

Nevertheless, some kind of merit pay is likely for Florida in the next few years.  Education-accountability reformers, the Obama administration, and legislative leaders are propelling the effort in the belief that nothing is more important to improving schools than – and that linking teachers’ performance to test results is essential.  

Florida DOE plans to develop a system that measures test-score improvement by each student and makes this “student-growth” the primary factor in evaluating teachers and principals and determining any future salary increases.  Furthermore, school districts would base decisions on employment contracts – “tenure,” or permanent job security – on those evaluations.

Teachers and their unions are joining the effort – as long as they are involved and evaluations of students include multiple measures, not just students’ standardized test scores.  The Florida Education Association supports the state’s Race to the Top application, which relies heavily on merit pay.  Local teachers’ unions also are participating in the design of merit plans in areas around the state, including in Volusia County, where the local union received $125,000 from the American Federation of Teachers to help the school district devise a pilot plan.

The most ambitious effort with the most money is occurring in the Hillsborough County school district. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, increasingly a major player in education nationally, is providing $100 million to the Hillsborough school system to devise a system linking teacher pay with student performance.  The grant will fund more than 100 mentors for teachers and train evaluators in assessing teacher performance.

The lessons seem clear.  Successful implementation of merit pay will require time, money, and involvement from teachers themselves.  While the theory of tying students’ test scores to teacher pay is reasonable, practical concerns dictate that merit pay systems be tested through pilot projects, revised, and implemented carefully. 

Trying to accomplish too much too soon by a legislative mandate – without investing the time, money, and collaboration necessary to do it right – would only create unnecessary turmoil.

Dave Hartley
August 6, 2010 at 11:51
I wish you would talk more about the abortive efforts at merit pay in the past. I know and have experienced THREE different plans, all of which were abandoned in the past...often leaving the teachers who bought into them abandoned as well. It is tough for experienced teachers to be anything but cynical as the politicians go at it again, while cutting budgets, mandating unfunded requirements, and fighting class size limits.
August 6, 2010 at 12:05
Thanks for the comment. Good suggestion.
Jim Mathews
August 9, 2010 at 09:51
I think classroom size limits are a factor that needs to be settled before pay for performance can be fair. The voters set max limits that were too costly and disruptive to implement. Why not use a "point count system" where each document on a student counts one point. (ESE, ESOL, 504, Gifted, as well as the basic student record.) Allow 5 "extra" points in the class- a max of 25 students becomes a max of 30 "clean" students" but could mean a class size of as few as 12 if every student was "documented". If you ask educators, they can all handle a much larger class of students without problems. The school's flexibility would be to move the problems around until the class is ok- you can move a new student in with no problems if you exchange one problem student to a class and take a no problem student in return. If any of the factors named in this article would make it unfair to judge a teacher on the students in the class, they will be automatically adjusted if the student actually exhibits exceptional performance.
Mike Archer
August 14, 2010 at 20:42
Isolating teachers - one component of an organization as complex as Florida's public school system - and presuming an artificial incentive will somehow improve it is simplistic and naive. The way this issue is portrayed presents a classic example of false balance - assuming equal weight between two positions when equal weight does not exist. The research has been done. It's old news. Merit pay based on test scores does not work. What does work is more complicated. Improvement to learning involves improvement to a starved school system. Curriculum has been narrowed so that schools can become test prep centers. Humanities, the arts, literature, and scholarship centered on thinking skills have all been reduced in the name of "accountability." Corporate intrusion has dumbed down academics. Millions of school dollars are wasted at the state level - compare FCAT costs to what the test has achieved. Shift the waste into the schools. Provide tuition credits and then base merit pay on rigorous academic training. Put technology in schools and stop farming out massive contracts to private interests with friends in the Legislature. When Florida wants a good school system, it will take steps to build one. Until then, all this discussion from Tallahassee is mere gorilla dust.
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