TAMPA — From poor to great in four months.
That's the assignment facing Florida school districts under the game-changing education bill signed into law last month by Gov. Rick Scott. By August, all 67 districts will need a teacher evaluation system that discerns between strong educators and weak ones.
Experts say it's a tall order for a system that last year rated 99 percent of all teachers as satisfactory or better.
"We have a system where nobody wants to give teachers low scores, everybody has high scores," said education researcher Robert Marzano, who designed the evaluation system being offered to districts by the Florida Department of Education. "I don't think it's going to be easy to change that culture quickly."
In an interview Friday during the National Association of Elementary School Principals convention in Tampa, Marzano said he supports the broad goals of Senate Bill 736, which ends automatic pay raises based on seniority, puts new teachers on one-year contracts and phases in a merit-based salary schedule.
But he said it would be a mistake to quickly fire those with low evaluation scores, especially if they're new to the profession.
"Let's say I'm a beginning teacher, I have a lot of heart, you know I'm going to be good someday," Marzano said. "I'm not (great) now, but you don't want to give me 'unsatisfactories.' "
Under SB 736, districts will be barred from offering a new contract to teachers who receive two straight "unsatisfactory" ratings, two within a three-year period, or three straight years of "needs improvement." The other possible categories are "effective" and "highly effective."
Districts must publicly announce the numbers of teachers in each category annually beginning in 2012 and report individual teacher scores to the Department of Education.
Frederick Hess, resident scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, said it's a recipe for disaster. At Education Week magazine online (edweek.org), he predicted that the law will bring a "train wreck" of errors and controversy.
He told the St. Petersburg Times that SB 736 is based on the "incredibly sensible idea" of determining which teachers are doing the best work and rewarding them accordingly.
"But we risk taking this idea and turning it into a rigid state statute that is going to breed frustration and lead to news stories that can point out lots of places where this tight formula didn't yield the desired effect," Hess said.
He worries about the law's requirement to base 50 percent of teachers' evaluations on student test scores, using a "value-added" statistical formula that has been found to carry high error rates. And he predicts that it will be hard to find enough time and money to quickly train people in a new teacher observation model.
"What I worry about is we're trying to build teacher evaluation and pay systems here that don't leave enough room for human judgment and for responsible school and district leaders to make big decisions for which they'll be held accountable," Hess added.
Officials with the state Department of Education didn't respond Friday to specific questions about the pace of Florida's reforms. But in recent interviews they have said districts will receive plenty of opportunities to learn the new system.
"It's a much more precise way to look at teacher practice and student learning improvement," said Kathy Hebda, deputy chancellor for educator quality.
The state has hired Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Educational Consulting Services and Learning Sciences International to run a dozen training academies and offer Internet-based seminars around the state for districts, using Marzano's teacher evaluation system as a model, she said.
The size of that contract has not been finalized but will be paid for using part of Florida's $700 million Race to the Top federal stimulus grant, officials said.
Some districts, including Hillsborough and Miami-Dade, have opted to use a state-approved system of their own. Hillsborough spent much of last summer and fall training its principals and peer evaluators, using money from a $100 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
It wasn't easy work. They watched summer school classes and evaluated them. But at first, many of their ratings — which teachers were "exemplary" and which ones needed improvement — disagreed.
"It is labor intensive, but there really isn't anything more important that a principal does," Hebda said, describing their role in helping teachers to improve. "We're going to make sure it's saturated around the state."
Marzano, who's not involved in that training, said he supports Florida's effort to push rapid changes into districts that have never made a real effort on teacher evaluation.
But he worries that his work will be used to quickly push low-performing teachers out the door, rather than being used as a tool to help them do a better job.
"We have to change the culture to one where it's okay to get low scores, and that doesn't mean you're doing a bad job," Marzano said. "It means you need improvement."
Tom Marshall can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3400.