On March 24 (last Thursday) Governor Rick Scott of Florida signed a new act into law which greatly affects teachers in the state. I printed off the law (which refers heavily on existing statutes) and would like to start off with a few facts, then follow those with some more facts. It is important to know these before we get down to bashing on them.

1. The bill changes how district school boards deal with compensation and salary schedules, requiring them to include performance criteria in the schedules that they adopt. (Performance pay)

2. The bill changes contract requirements for personnel hired on or after a certain date. (Tenure)

These are the two most controversial points in the bill. School districts are charged with creating evaluation procedures (which need to be approved by the state) that will be used to determine whether their teachers are (1) highly effective, (2) effective, (3) needing improvement (or in the case of beginning teachers: developing), or (4) unsatisfactory.  The bill actually makes a point of saying that “a school district’s performance evaluation is not limited to basing unsatisfactory performance of instructional personnel…solely upon student performance” but later states that student performance should comprise at least 50% of teachers’ evaluation scores.

The bill states that the Commissioner of Education will be coming up with a formula that measures student academic growth to be put into place by October 2012. This formula will include data from the FCAT including the students’ prior performance, grade level, and subject area. While the commissioner will also take student attendance, disciplinary records, disabilities, and English proficiency under consideration, he/she will not consider gender, race, ethnicity, or socioeconomic status in the formula. (I have some thoughts on this, but we are currently dealing in straight facts taken directly from the bill.) For teachers who instruct in areas not covered by the state assessments, they can look forward to either shackling themselves to the state assessment anyway and basically rolling the dice or developing their own yearly assessments which will need to be approved by the district and the state.

Once all of these student assessments and teacher evaluation procedures are in place we can now explore how compensation and salary schedules are going to change. First, districts are going to have to develop a salary schedule that will be used for employees hired before July 1, 2014. Personnel will remain on this schedule as long as they remain employed by the district. They can choose to opt into the “performance salary schedule” but once they have done so they cannot return to the grandfathered salary schedule.

All employees hired after July 1, 2014 will be automatically placed on the performance salary schedule. It includes a base salary determined by the collective bargaining contract as well as salary adjustments based on a teacher’s label, i.e. highly effective, effective, needs improvement, or unsatisfactory. Only teachers receiving a highly effective or effective rating will receive a salary adjustment.

Teachers can also receive salary supplements which are different from adjustments in that a teacher can receive more money if they (1) teach at a Title 1 eligible school, (2) teach at an underperforming school, (3) teach a subject that is identified in a critical shortage area, or (4) if they take on additional jobs or responsibilities. And finally, the teacher contract system will change to be based on student performance and not on how long a teacher has been teaching (Just to note that this last point was hard to find. It was a one sentence change that adjusted existing statutes.)

Did you stick with me this far? Congratulations if you managed to do so. Now let’s talk turkey. I have three specific problems with this bill: its suggestions for evaluation, its (lack of) funding, and its sneaky removal of teachers’ bargaining rights. The Miami Herald gives a fairly accurate appraisal of the bill, specifically calling into question where the funding for this mandate is going to come from. Not only are districts going to have to pay teachers more in adjustments and supplements, but they are also going to have to pay to develop new student assessments to fill the gaps left by the FCAT for other subjects as well as students with special needs. Where will districts find this money? With budget cuts for education at the state level at almost 10% and no hope for tax increases, revenue can only come from cuts at the local level and possibly a really good bake sale.

On the issue of teacher evaluation I feel that it is extremely reckless to tie 50% of a teacher’s performance rating to the performance of their students. As I have stated before it is irresponsible to ignore that students’ performance is based in large part on their home environment and the support they receive there. To ignore such variables as socioeconomic status or ethnicity is to ignore key factors in educational success. But returning to the point, while I agree that student performance in general can be an indicator of a teacher’s effectiveness, there are too many other variables involved to make it 50% of their evaluation.

The bill also makes every teacher’s contract a one-year deal and allows for the district to terminate them at any time for any reason (basically you have a provisional, beginning teacher’s contract forever). When added to the ever in flux performance pay schedule you find that teachers can essentially no longer bargain for higher salaries or different contract terms. In essence the rug has been pulled out from under them in one fell swoop.

Some thoughts:

1. Who is going to work in an underperforming school? The offer of a supplement can’t possibly be enough to tempt decent teachers to take the chance on being labeled unsatisfactory or needs improvement based on their student performance. A teacher who gets highly effective scores/pay at one school is not likely to leave and teach at another school where the students put out low scores and put their pay at risk. Governor Scott has essentially set up currently under performing schools on a list for closure.

2. Scott is also a proponent of more charter schools, and where will teachers who want good pay want to go but to a school where students are accepted based on merit and talent and basically do the work for you? Then he can say “Look! Charter schools are growing like I said they would!” But what bout those underperforming schools governor? Are they attracting the best and brightest minds like you thought?

3. Scott was quoted by the Sunshine News as saying “We must recruit and retain the best people to make sure every classroom in Florida has a highly effective teacher.” Translation: We need to get rid of the crappy schools and set up a system that pushes bad students out and good students and teachers into charter and private schools so we can say every teacher is highly effective when really we are only serving high performing kids anyway! Good teachers are good teachers wherever they go, but you can’t change the clay they are given to work with, especially if you don’t give them the funding they need to moisten and shape the clay into what you expect.

We aren’t recognizing exceptional teachers with this bill. We are rewarding teachers shrewd enough to find jobs where they are guaranteed the pay raise due to the student population, and we are punishing already struggling schools and teachers with baseline salaries and a lack of support where students already struggle at home and at school and change is a deeper, sociological problem.

A side issue in this bill is how “specials” teachers (i.e. art, music, PE, library) are supposed to be paid, but that is where the extra assessments come in: since the FCAT doesn’t assess these areas districts will have to pay to have specialists develop approved assessments to be used to determine if progress has been made. This seems like the most vague portion of the bill and district may opt (as some Arizona schools did between 2003 and 2010) to simply chain these teachers to a grade level and base their performance pay on a teacher from that level. Doesn’t seem fair but the bill seems to allow for it as long as for those teachers the FCAT isn’t 50% of their evaluation. An interesting conundrum.

I wonder how long it will be before Scott proposes a lessening of the child labor laws in Florida much like Governor LePage has in Maine. All those poor, underperforming kids have to go somewhere right?