Tuesday, May 22, 2018
Education

Romano: Legislature borrows an idea for education reform, and gets it all wrong

The first time around, the idea was largely ridiculed.

A plan to potentially hand out $10,000 bonuses to teachers based on tests they took in high school as far back as the 1970s or '80s seemed kooky even by Florida standards.

So, naturally, lawmakers now want to make the bonuses permanent.

Good grief, are there are no grownups anywhere in Tallahassee? Do we really need one more example of politicians having just enough intellect to be dangerous?

In this case, the idea comes from Rep. Erik Fresen, R-Miami, who once told Times reporter Jeffrey Solochek that he came up with the concept after reading Amanda Ripley's 2013 book The Smartest Kids in the World.

Fresen said the book revealed that nations with exceptional student performance typically employed high-paid teachers who had graduated at the top of their classes.

He's right about that.

Finland, which is portrayed in the book as the educational gold standard, began limiting the number of universities offering teaching degrees, and became more selective about the students admitted into the programs. In essence, Finland turned teaching into an elite and respected profession that attracted some of the nation's brightest achievers.

What Fresen ignored was all the other factors involved.

Finland gave up the obsessive accountability-style reforms we seem to love and use in Florida to evaluate teachers. Schools and educators were given more autonomy and control over their classrooms and lesson plans. Teachers, principals and politicians worked in unison instead of using top-down, one-size-fits-all mandates.

Yet here in Florida, we figured a $10,000 bribe would work miracles.

Look, I understand we have to start somewhere. And the idea of recruiting the best students out of high school and college to become teachers has tremendous merit.

But it is fantasy to believe that raising the earning potential for about 5 percent of the state's teachers is going to radically alter the profession. And it's even more ludicrous to think that rewarding teachers retroactively for 20-year-old SAT or ACT scores will raise morale.

What Fresen is proposing is a gimmick, not a strategy.

If lawmakers are serious about transforming education, and attracting better teachers, then they will stop trying to micromanage classrooms from Tallahassee. They will stop blaming teachers for political reforms that fail. They will make teachers feel as if they are part of the solution instead of insisting they're the problem.

I'm guessing that elevating the public's perception of the profession will do more to attract and retain teachers than non-sequitur bonuses.

In California, one district has started a program that allows high school students to assist teachers in elementary schools. They get paid a small stipend and earn internship credits. The idea is to identify students with an interest and aptitude for teaching and give them a glimpse of the vocation before they reach college.

Those kind of grass roots ideas are worth exploring.

And if we want to attract the best students out of college, instead of offering bonuses, it might be better to establish a program that will pay off tuition debts if the top graduates commit to teaching in-state for a certain number of years.

I suppose it's encouraging that lawmakers are willing to explore ideas to elevate student performance, but it can't be approached in a vacuum. Like so many reforms in the past, a tinker here or a tweak there can end up doing more harm than good.

There's nothing wrong with looking at other nations to get a sense of what might work here in Florida, but we can't cherry-pick one idea and assume it will stand on its own.

That's like reading one chapter of a math textbook and assuming you understand algebra.

Around here, we already know that doesn't work.

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