Thursday, March 17, 2011

Florida Law Lacks Merit and Pay

AAAA Republican-sponsored bill (SB 736) that would impose a merit pay plan on teachers and end tenure for new hires was approved by the Florida House on Wednesday. The legislation requires school districts to evaluate teachers partially on how much their students improve on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT) or other exams over a three-year period. Half a teacher’s evaluation would be based on these test scores, while half would be based on evaluations by principals, and the evaluations would be used to determine if a teacher should get merit pay or be fired. Gov. Rick Scott has made it clear that he intends to sign the bill into law.

Under the new law, all new hires would work under one-year contracts, effectively ending tenure. All teachers for now on would be subject to arbitrary firing. Teachers who speak out against abusive administrators or working conditions could simply not be rehired the following school year.

However, by using student test scores for 50% of a teacher’s evaluation, they are creating a system that is not only blind, but stupid. While the traditional system for teacher evaluations suffered the flaw of having inadequately trained administrators who often spend very little time observing teachers, at least it was based on things the teacher could control, like the creativity of their lesson plans, their knowledge of the content and the relationships they built with students. Test scores, in contrast, are dependent far more on a student’s socioeconomic background than on teacher skill. Thus, many highly skilled teachers who choose to work with (or wind up with) low income students will end up being let go, while some mediocre teachers who happen to work in privileged schools may end up getting merit bonuses.

Furthermore, they are potentially worsening the teacher shortage as people will be much less likely to pursue teaching careers if they don’t see any security in the job. Contrary to popular opinion, teaching is a highly skilled job. Most teachers need several years of experience before they are really good at their jobs. During this time they often put in 60-80 hour weeks to develop creative lessons, debrief lessons that they have delivered, increase their expertise with the content, fine-tune their discipline procedures, and learn to navigate the various levels of bureaucracy. If they are forced to reapply for their jobs each year, few will be willing to make such an investment of time and energy.

There are numerous bureaucratic problems with the legislation, too. For example, the bill provides no money to develop the state tests that would be used to assess teachers, nor any funding for the merit raises. Thus, in practice, there may be no one getting any merit pay, but a lot of people being fired due to their students’ test scores. Meanwhile, many districts are laying off teachers and slashing “non-essential” programs like sports in order to balance their budgets.

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