TAMPA — Teacher A has 25 years' experience and a master's degree. Teacher B has just five years in the classroom and no advanced degree.
So who's the better teacher?
A St. Petersburg Times analysis of teachers earning merit pay in Hillsborough County provides a surprising answer: The teachers who get merit pay bonuses for raising student achievement aren't always the most experienced or best educated. And quite often, they still make less money than teachers who haven't earned bonuses.
The findings, in fact, suggest that quality has little to do with how schools pay the 30,000 teachers in the Tampa Bay area. What rules the day is not how well students do, but how long a teacher has stuck around and how much education he or she has.
"The experiment is always if you walked into your child's school and you're told that the teacher has a master's degree, should you be happy or not," says Eric Hanushek, a senior fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution who has studied the issue nationally. "My answer is you should be indifferent."
Experts say good teachers get results because they're good, not because they have a lot of experience and advanced degrees. But pay scales for teachers heavily emphasize those factors.
A 25-year teacher with a master's degree, for example, earned $61,000 last year in Hillsborough County. A five-year educator without an advanced degree earned $40,000.
So even if the five-year teacher got better results, as measured by standardized testing, he or she would still earn thousands less than the other teacher.
Ruth Jones, who teaches fifth grade at Hillsborough's Bay Crest Elementary, has seen all kinds of teachers: The educator in it just for the dental plan. The one giving everything to the hardest job anyone could ever love.
She agrees that pay should reflect the difference.
"If you're a higher performing teacher, you do want to get rewarded for it," says Jones, who received the merit bonus.
Of course, she also likes the annual raise she gets just to continue teaching.
"I would like to think that every year I'm here I'm worth a little more to the school district."
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Teachers weren't always paid according to experience and degree. Early last century, secondary teachers — mostly males — earned more than elementary instructors. Gender and race inequalities were rampant.
The solution was a model that placed everyone on the same footing. Most school systems today rely on a uniform schedule of raises. A year's experience usually equals a step up in pay.
But opinion is swinging again. Researchers now have evidence of what actually happens inside classrooms, using sophisticated data sets to analyze student test scores over years.
"Knowing that teachers are the single most important determinant of the learning that is going to take place in a year for that child, people have started conducting studies to see, 'What is the relationship between the experience and the degrees held and the student outcomes?' " says Matthew Springer, director of the National Center on Performance Incentives at Vanderbilt University.
What they've found, he says, is "there really is no systematic relationship."
That's evident in the Times' analysis of the teachers receiving $2,100 bonuses through the state's Merit Award Program, which put a heavy emphasis on student gains as measured by test scores.
The Hillsborough teachers who received merit bonuses last year averaged 14 years in the classroom. That's just two years more than Hillsborough teachers overall.
A master's degree didn't seem to matter much, either. Having one did not make teachers more likely to earn merit pay, even though the credential is worth an extra $3,000 annually in salary.
Studies have shown that experience matters greatly in the first years, but the returns diminish quickly. Excellent teachers stand out after just a few years, researchers say, while bad teachers don't necessarily get better with time.
"If you look at a sixth-year teacher, or seventh- or eighth- or ninth-, they wouldn't look much different than a fifth-year teacher," says Tim Sass, an economics professor at Florida State University. "But they still would be better than the rookie teacher."
Teachers see it happen in just about every school.
"The years don't matter. It's what you do with the experience," says Marygrace Farina, a fifth-year teacher at Riverview High in south Hillsborough. "The years can beat you down if you don't use them."
She believes a master's degree has value and just earned hers in reading education at the University of South Florida. Going back to school recharged her creativity.
But the research says it doesn't boost every teacher.
"A lot of teachers get master's degrees in areas that don't relate to what they're teaching," says Michael Podgursky, an economics professor at the University of Missouri in Columbia, who studies teacher compensation.
Consider a teacher getting a master's in educational administration. "That's not going to make you a better reading teacher," he says.
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Hillsborough's experiment with merit pay offers a rare window into teachers deemed the best by a quantified measure.
Most school districts weren't even willing to look. Teachers in Pinellas, Pasco and Hernando counties walked away from the state bonus program. Only seven districts in Florida are participating.
Hillsborough's pilot last fall wasn't without problems. The money flowed disproportionately to teachers at affluent schools. The district quickly made changes to ensure that won't happen again.
Many teachers didn't understand how they were judged and worry about merit pay becoming divisive in a profession that prizes teamwork. The district hopes for better results when a second round of bonuses are awarded this month.
Still, Hillsborough's plan was not designed to be used to identify the best teachers for research purposes.
"It's jerry-built," says Sherman Dorn, a USF education professor and a critic of high-stakes accountability in Florida. "I don't think the list of teachers tells you a thing."
The Florida Education Association, a statewide teachers union, also warns against judging teachers by the test scores of their students. And spokesman Mark Pudlow points out that teaching is hardly the only profession where years of experience translate into higher salaries.
"I understand there's a lot of interest in making sure that if you invest in teacher pay that you get as much bang for the buck that you can," says Pudlow, who wants the state to first raise the base pay for teachers. "It's also necessary to be competitive."
Though he received a merit pay bonus, Doug Hollederer doesn't believe a standardized test captures everything he brings to Anderson Elementary in south Tampa. He uses his 26 years of experience while mentoring younger teachers.
He says he changed his teaching style over the years to keep up with students. But not every teacher does. Hollederer knows colleagues who are just counting the years until retirement.
"It's a survival mode they put themselves into," the second-grade teacher says. "I always say, I'm going to die with chalk in my hands. As long as I have something to offer my students, this is my passion."
Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Letitia Stein can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3400. For more education news, visit The Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.
How we did the analysis
The Times requested records on the experience level and degree attained by every teacher in Hillsborough County, which was matched with last year's merit pay recipients. The Times found records for 92 percent of the educators receiving the bonus. School administrators, including principals, accounted for 4 percent of the unmatched records.
Other teacher pay programs
Merit Award Program (MAP): All teachers are considered for this state-funded award. The Legislature requires that 60 percent of the determination be based on student test scores. In Hillsborough, the balance was decided by teacher evaluations. In 2007, the district awarded $2,100 bonuses to 4,700 educators for the first time.
Teacher Incentive Fund (TIF/POWER): Hillsborough has a five-year, $15-million federal grant to develop a merit pay system based on student learning gains. The goal is to recruit and retain effective educators in high-poverty schools. Bonuses are determined using the same criteria as MAP. Last year, Hillsborough piloted the program at 21 schools with the highest needs. It will expand this year to 116 high-poverty schools. Additional compensation is available for professional development and for select teachers to mentor.
Pay for Performance: Teachers apply for a bonus worth 5 percent of their salary. Principals decide whether they are eligible based on a portfolio of the instructor's work and evaluations. The district awarded 2,300 bonuses in 2006-07, the last year for which figures are available.
Salary differential: Teachers can earn the equivalent of combat pay for working at schools where at least 90 percent of students are impoverished. Teachers with less than five years' experience earn a 5 percent bonus. Teachers with five years or more receive a 10 percent supplement. At these schools, National Board Certified teachers receive an additional $4,500, in addition to the $4,000 they already receive for that distinction.