FORT WALTON BEACH — Florida's new teacher evaluation system isn't working, and lawmakers should stop making major changes in the state's schools until that plan and other key initiatives are fixed and implemented, Florida Senate President Don Gaetz said.
The former Okaloosa County school superintendent said the test-based evaluation system and a related performance pay plan are too complicated and fail to draw clear distinctions between the best and worst teachers.
The Florida Department of Education last month released the first preliminary evaluation results. They showed nearly 97 percent of teachers across Florida were rated "effective" or "highly effective." Those are the top two out of five possible ratings.
"How can you have a C or D ranked school in which 85 percent, or 90 or 95 percent, of the teachers are classified as effective or highly effective?" the Republican from nearby Niceville said in an interview Monday. "It seems to me that those two data points have to have some relationship to each other."
Besides the evaluation system and pay plan, Florida's schools also are phasing in far-reaching national Common Core State Standards, a new test for assessing student performance based on those standards and end-of-course exams.
These changes are "all like rockets that have been shot in the air," Gaetz said.
"We need to quit shooting rockets into the air. We need to give schools and school districts, teachers and parents time to institutionalize the reforms that have already been made. We need about a two-year cooling-off period."
The evaluations will be used to determine teacher salaries under the performance pay plan, which is supposed to go into effect next year. Both are part of a 2011 law that also ended tenure for newly hired teachers. The law is being challenged in court by the Florida Education Association, the statewide teachers union.
Gaetz blamed the Department of Education and former Education Commissioner Gerard Robinson for failing to adequately support and help school districts in implementing the new law. He said he's counting on Robinson's successor, Tony Bennett, to simplify the evaluation system and pay plan and make them understandable.
"If you can't explain it, then you can't defend it," Gaetz said. He added that lawmakers who passed it, including himself, would be hard pressed "to explain how this system works and how it's fair and rational."
In many cases, teachers are evaluated on the basis of students they've never taught because their own students aren't tested or due to turnover.
Bennett, who was hired as Florida's schools chief after losing a bid for re-election as Indiana's superintendent of public instruction in November, recently told the Senate Education Committee that the 2011 law may need to be tweaked.
Gaetz also was cool to Gov. Rick Scott's latest education proposal, a $2,500 across-the-board pay raise for teachers, which would cost $480 million.
"I believe that teachers in this state are underpaid, but if I had $480 million I would try to figure out a way to pay our best teachers more," Gaetz said.