Wednesday, October 18, 2006

The Merit Pay Chronicles: The Florida Story

A number of teachers and districts in the Sunshine State are less-than-enamored with that state's new merit-pay scheme:
Top public-school teachers could be in line for hefty bonuses under Florida's new merit-pay program, but questions of fairness and union disputes could cause some school districts to miss a year-end deadline for deciding how to distribute the money.

The state Board of Education on Tuesday approved the first merit-pay plan -- Hillsborough County's -- with fanfare. But most Orlando-area districts have not decided how they will hand out their shares of the $147.5 million available statewide.

Teachers unions across the state oppose the new Special Teachers Are Rewarded program approved by the Legislature last spring as a replacement for an earlier, failed merit-pay plan.

"It's just not fair. It pits teacher against teacher," said Mike Cahill, president of the Orange County Classroom Teachers Association.

Under the program, the top 25 percent of elementary-, middle- and high-school teachers in each county would get 5 percent bonuses. For a teacher earning $40,000, that means an extra $2,000.

With about 182,000 teachers statewide, 45,500 would get the cash.

Eligibility for the bonuses will be based on student scores from the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test or other evaluations. Teachers whose students showed the most gains would be rewarded next spring after annual state tests.

Librarians, reading coaches and other special teachers also can receive bonuses, although their impact on students will be harder to assess than that of classroom teachers.

Like the unions, many school boards don't like the bonus plan, saying bonus pay for some teachers is a poor alternative to boosting pay for all.

"Until we can get our pay up to national averages, we should take the money and give it to all teachers," said Chuck Butler, assistant superintendent of Osceola County schools.

School districts have until Dec. 31 to come up with their own STAR plans. Those who don't could lose millions of dollars in state lottery funds or face other punishment, state public schools Chancellor Cheri Yecke warned in letters to district superintendents.

Yecke also has advised teachers unions and school-district officials that money set aside for districts that don't participate will go to those that do. That means more teachers could get bonuses in those districts, an incentive for some districts to move swiftly to get more cash.

Gov. Jeb Bush and other state officials dislike current union-negotiated teacher-salary schedules, which are based on years of experience and degrees earned. They favor a pay system based on student achievement, with test scores as the measure.

"If we can move past the one-size-fits-all teacher salary schedule to a more dynamic system of compensation, our teachers and students will be the beneficiaries," Education Commissioner John Winn said Tuesday.

But critics of the pay plan say it is as riddled with flaws as several others that have preceded it during the past 25 years. Measuring student gains in gym, art and music, for example, will be more difficult than in math or reading.

Union officials say teachers were not included in writing guidelines for the plan. They hope to invalidate the Department of Education's interpretation of how the Legislature intended STAR to be implemented.

"This is not a good idea for Florida because we are so far behind other states in base salaries," said Mark Pudlow, FEA spokesman.

According to the National Education Association, the average teacher salary in Florida was $41,587 in the 2004-05 school year, the latest for which data is available. Nationwide, the average was $47,808. Florida was 32nd among states and slipping.
The chief concern that I have with the concept of merit pay is how such a system could be developed that would fairly measure teacher effectiveness when students are permitted by state guidelines and school administration to disrupt the learning environment while not even attempting to do work assigned by their teachers or put-forth their best effort on state and federally-mandated standardized tests.
See our latest EduPosts here, this date's Extra Credit Reading there, and this date's edition of The Carnival of Education over at her place.