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Florida teacher tenure bills would bring rapid change

Some call it the beginning of the end for public education in Florida. Others say it's a fresh start, and long overdue.

Either way, change is coming if legislators pass bills to end tenure and overhaul the system for evaluating and paying teachers. Under Senate Bill 736 and the similar House Bill 7019, districts would be required to use test scores to rate teachers and principals. Those who measure up would earn higher salaries, while those who fail could lose their jobs.

Both bills are teed up for quick passage as the Legislature begins work today. And unlike the similar Senate Bill 6, which fell to Charlie Crist's veto pen last year, current Gov. Rick Scott has promised to sign the proposals into law.

Here's a look at the what would happen if the bills are approved:

How quickly would we see changes in schools?

Teachers hired after July 1 would serve under one-year contracts and lose their "tenure" rights to open-ended jobs. By this fall, districts would be required to adopt evaluation systems that base 50 percent of teacher ratings on students' academic progress. The rest could be determined by teacher observation and other factors, but would have to meet stringent new standards.

By July 2012, districts would have to publicize the percentage of teachers in four categories, from "highly effective" to "effective," "needs improvement" and "unsatisfactory."

Would current teachers lose tenure?

They will continue to work under multiyear contracts. But when it comes to the new evaluation system, current teachers will be treated no differently than teachers hired after July 1. In both cases, those who earn two "unsatisfactory" ratings within three years could be fired. And districts that face layoffs would be required to use teacher evaluation scores — rather than seniority — to determine who keeps their job.

How is this tied to teacher pay?

By 2014, the salary of new hires would be based on their evaluations. Those rated "effective" or "highly effective" could earn raises. Current teachers could choose to be part of the performance-based program or remain on their existing salary schedule. Lawmakers hope districts can cover the cost of merit pay by eliminating automatic seniority bonuses for teachers. In theory, that cost shift frees up money that could be used to pay high performers more.

Would principals be evaluated in the same way?

Yes. And districts would be required to publicize the percentage of administrators earning each performance rating.

How would test scores be used to rate teachers?

They use a statistical method called value-added analysis. It predicts individual students' performance on tests, based on their track record, and then rates teachers on whether they achieve those annual performance goals.

Have any concerns been raised about such methods?

Yes. The bills say Florida may not "set different expectations" for learning growth based on a student's gender, race, ethnicity or socioeconomic status. Some states, like Tennessee, say that's fair because students are only compared against themselves.

But some teachers worry they'll be penalized for working in high-needs schools. Other states and districts have found that including variables like schoolwide poverty makes value-added scores more accurate. Excluding such factors could hurt the very student groups such language was meant to protect, said Steven Glazerman of the consulting firm Mathematica.

How much is all of this going to cost?

No one knows. Department of Education officials say they will use a big chunk of the state's $700 million federal Race to the Top grant to develop new tests and help train districts to use the new evaluation systems. But a legislative analysis said districts will likely need to spend their own money to finish the job. The state also will face "significant" costs to evaluate charter schools' compliance with the new rules.

Where do Tampa Bay school districts stand in this process?

Hillsborough could earn an annual exemption due to its similar reforms with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Pinellas is piloting a new teacher evaluation in several schools and the Pasco School Board last week reviewed a draft of its new evaluation system.

Why is all of this so controversial?

Veteran teachers say tenure protects them from being dismissed without hearings and other due process rights. They worry that districts will label them as ineffective, using error-prone formulas. Opponents say the bills' true goal is to replace older teachers with low-cost rookies.

Supporters say tenure protections make it time consuming and expensive to fire weak teachers. They point to data showing that districts have rated more than 99 percent of teachers as satisfactory or outstanding, and paid annual raises regardless of performance.

Are other states changing as quickly as Florida?

Similar changes are being pushed through legislatures from Idaho to Indiana and New Jersey.

Some states have established a more moderate pace. Colorado — which last spring passed a bill ending tenure and tying teacher pay to student growth, with support from teachers unions — has spent the last year gathering opinions from teachers and parents. And it formed an independent commission to suggest a fair system for evaluating teachers.

Tom Marshall can be reached at tmarshall@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3400.

Florida teacher tenure bills would bring rapid change 03/08/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, March 9, 2011 10:19am]

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