The Florida Department of Education recently released a statewide compilation of educator evaluations. The data revealed that approximately 98 percent of teachers in Florida were ranked by their school districts as effective or highly effective.
During the same week, Florida's results on the Program for International Student Assessment, an exam that compares 15-year-old student literacy in mathematics, science and reading, were released. In addition to overall U.S. results, three states — Florida, Massachusetts and Connecticut — took part independently in this exam. Florida students ranked well below those in Massachusetts and Connecticut in all three categories and fared poorly in an international comparison.
The exam results have left many Floridians scratching their heads and wondering: If our teachers are so good, why does our student achievement remain so poor?
Even accepting all of the caveats that should keep us from reading too much into the results of any one test, it is troubling to see Florida ranked below 25 nations on average in mathematics, science and reading literacy.
The results are particularly meaningful to a state that aspires to recruit major corporations and to compete internationally for business. A school system that is mired below the international average in education is not likely to be successful in recruiting companies that will offer high-paying, high-skilled jobs.
So what can be done?
Some background: Florida law requires that 50 percent of a teacher's annual evaluation be based on data and indicators of student learning growth, assessed annually and measured by statewide assessments, or, for subjects and grade levels not measured by statewide assessments, by district assessments.
The other 50 percent of an educator's evaluation is at the discretion of the school district with some proportion associated with a measurement of actual classroom instruction.
School districts have vast discretion about how they determine effectiveness based on both parts of the measurements. They decide where to draw the line. And observers across the state assert that school districts draw the line too low, which explains why the percentage of "effective" teachers is so stunningly and inexplicably high.
The Legislature and/or the State Board of Education may decide to solve this problem by raising the line for effectiveness, and they are certainly empowered to do that. If they do, fewer teachers will be ranked as effective.
But that's not the right approach either. And the effort to measure teacher effectiveness should not stop by drawing some arbitrary line.
School districts and the state have a duty to parents and students to support teachers as they continue to refine and enhance their content and pedagogical skills. There are few fields where continuous improvement is more important than in teaching. Those who remain stagnant, even the gifted teachers, lose their effectiveness fairly rapidly if they don't work at advancing them.
Districts also have an obligation to choose their principals and assistant principals wisely and to train them in observing and analyzing effective teaching. Armed with these skills, they are then positioned to mentor the classroom teachers and to direct those who are less effective to programs that can help them improve their skills.
The results from the PISA exams are troubling, as is a system that claims 98 percent of our teachers are effective, but they need not be paralyzing nor should they lead to bad public policy.
A strong and ongoing commitment to continuous improvement in education and a process that will help ensure it will improve our schools — other nations that have overtaken the United States have demonstrated this.
David R. Colburn is the director of the Bob Graham Center for Public Service at the University of Florida. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. He wrote this exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times.