Today in Orlando, 85 Florida teachers will be honored by a Jeb Bush foundation for being the best in their profession.
They'll be given $1,000 and paid passage for two on a Caribbean cruise. They'll share their tips for success with the University of Florida Lastinger Center for Learning so the state's other 170,000 teachers can learn from them.
And how does the foundation know these teachers are tops?
The FCAT said so.
Many teachers recoil at the notion that their skills can be measured by their students' test scores, especially on the ever-controversial Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test. But in Florida and across the nation, that idea is picking up steam.
A growing body of research shows that some teachers are far better than others, yet quality rarely factors into salaries. Meanwhile, politicians and policy experts of all stripes are driven by mounting evidence that high-poverty schools often have more subpar teachers.
"If students demonstrate progress, the teachers deserve credit," said Kristy Campbell, spokeswoman for the Foundation for Excellence in Education, which is giving out the awards. "We believe an annual standardized test is the best way" to measure that.
Many education researchers remain wary. Among other problems, they say, the statistical techniques used to single out a teacher's contribution to a student's test score are not accurate enough, at least not yet. Too many student-related factors are still in the mix. And it's possible that a teacher who is in the top tier one year could end up in the middle of the pack the next.
"If we believe that teacher quality doesn't change much over time, that a good teacher is a good teacher year in and year out, then that volatility suggests we've got a pretty noisy measure of teacher quality," said Florida State University economics professor Tim Sass, who has done considerable research on the subject. "And that's a problem if we're using them for high-stakes things like teacher pay or teacher tenure."
To get names of top teachers, the foundation asked the Florida Department of Education to analyze two years' worth of FCAT math and reading scores. The department ranked thousands of teachers according to their students' learning gains, and created 30 lists that grouped teachers by school level and student type. In the end, it gave the foundation the names of the 50 highest-ranked teachers on each list.
For all of them, the DOE used "value-neutral tables" so teachers who teach different types of students could still be compared to one another.
The lists do not include all teachers. Many subject-area teachers, such as history teachers, were left out because there is no FCAT for their subjects. Teachers in grades K, 1, 2, 11 and 12 were left out because the FCAT is not given in those grades. And third-grade teachers were left out because fourth grade is the first year that year-to-year growth can be measured.
Still, many teachers were ranked, including 6,957 in the Tampa Bay area who teach reading and 5,670 who teach math.
Joyce Svabek, a math teacher at East Lake High in north Pinellas, ranked fourth in Florida among high school math teachers — high enough to earn one of the awards.
The 45-year veteran said she did not consider the award hers alone. She cited the contributions of past teachers. And she said it might have been simple luck that she got students who caught on quickly, while other teachers who are equally effective did not get students who were as motivated or parents who were as helpful.
"This year I might be wonderful and next year I might not be," she said.
Four teacher quality experts told the St. Petersburg Times that Svabek has a point. Sass said he and other researchers looked at student learning gains in four Florida school districts, including Hillsborough. They found that only about one in four to one in three teachers whose student gains put them in the top 20 percent of teachers one year remained in the top 20 percent the next year.
The Times obtained the lists from the DOE but decided not to publish them. Besides the possibility that rankings might fluctuate from year to year, the lists contained errors.
Campbell said foundation officials verified each highly ranked teacher's data with his or her principal. In some cases, usually involving team teaching, the wrong teacher had been given credit. They then worked with the principal to identify the correct teacher.
Asked if the potential volatility of the scores gave the foundation pause, Campbell said, "There's no doubt these teachers made the greatest gains with their students this year."
DOE spokesman Tom Butler said the data did not go through the same verification process it would have had it been used for policy development and/or publication. He said the department had no plans to publish the lists.
Some educators would be appalled if they were.
"If parents want to know about their teachers, looking at this chart is not going to tell them whether the teacher is good or effective," said Jean Clements, president of the Hillsborough teachers union.
Some parents and accountability advocates were more receptive — a difference of opinion that may point to a coming clash over such data.
Those lists would be "an incredible tool" for spotlighting teachers who aren't effective, said Sami Leigh Scott, president of the Pinellas School Advisory Council. "One of the things I've been trying to figure out is, who's really making a difference?"
In the meantime, finding a way to use student scores to pinpoint the best teachers remains the Holy Grail for researchers, Sass said.
"I'm still hopeful that we can get something useful out of this," he said, "but I don't think we're there yet."
Times researcher Connie Humburg contributed to this report. Ron Matus can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8873.