A quality education can change a life. It opens the door to opportunity by preparing a person for success after school. It can end the cruel cycle of poverty and prevent a lifetime of dependence on government. It can instill a lifetime love of learning.
Knowing this, how can we accept anything less than excellence for our students?
Senate Bill 6, which has been passed by the Florida Legislature and is on the desk of Gov. Charlie Crist, will incentivize and reward excellence in teaching. The centerpiece of the legislation — tying teacher salaries to individual student progress — is based on the fundamental belief that all students can learn. Scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a test given to students across the nation, prove it.
On last year's test, Florida's fourth-grade students with disabilities jumped nine points in reading, compared to a one-point drop nationally. Eighth-grade students with disabilities rose an astounding 11 points, compared to a three-point increase nationally. Today, Florida's Hispanic fourth-grade students read as well or better than the average student in 31 states and the District of Columbia, and African-American students are on the rise, too.
Florida's stunning and sustained progress began a decade ago after Florida enacted the A+ Plan.
Since that bold — and controversial — legislation became law, Florida has graded schools based solely on student performance on the FCAT. The result: More students are learning. In fact, since the annual progress of students with disabilities was added to the school grade, their performance has improved. Those schools that earn an A or improve a letter grade — even if it is from an F to a D — get a cash reward, which is used primarily for bonuses to teachers and staff.
Using a similar model, SB 6 will make learning a measure of effective teaching and will reward teachers whose students make progress. Because some students start the school year below grade level, teachers will not be measured on what their students know. Rather, teachers will be measured on how much each individual student learns during the year in their class. Students will not be compared with each other, only to their own progress from one year to the next. Moreover, the bill requires even higher salaries for truly exceptional teachers who help their students make up for lost ground.
Nearly half of teachers leave the profession in the first 10 years, many because of the low pay in the early years. Rewarding effectiveness instead of longevity will keep the best of the best in our classrooms.
The bill ends tenure for new teachers, starting in July of this year. Teachers who have tenure keep it but also benefit from these higher salaries.
This reform also tackles two specific challenges: preparing students for the jobs of the 21st century economy and closing the achievement gap, once and for all.
Today's fast-paced global economy rewards knowledge. Requiring more rigorous courses, like geometry and physics, is half of the solution. Recruiting highly qualified instructors to teach these subjects is the other half. Right now, mathematicians and scientists can earn more money in the private sector, which has led to a shortage of teachers in these subjects. Requiring higher salaries for these teachers under the law will make the teaching profession more competitive, and therefore, a more attractive option for many who might not have considered the job due to pay.
Closing the achievement gap for poor and minority students is the moral imperative of our nation. Thousands of teachers across Florida overcome tremendous challenges faced by their students — poverty, lack of parental involvement, an unstable home life — to ensure their students learn a year's worth of knowledge in a year's time. Unfortunately, their hard work in these tougher jobs is currently unrewarded. Many good teachers leave these jobs for suburban schools or leave the profession altogether for higher pay. That's why the bill requires higher salaries for teachers who work in high-poverty schools.
Finally, the law establishes the broad parameters for salaries, but school districts and unions would still maintain the power, as they always have, to negotiate the actual salaries.
Signing the bill will create a catalyst for the unions, school districts, teachers and state officials to come to the negotiating table. The unions have consistently opposed reform, even when it means losing $1 billion for Florida's schools in Race to the Top. The law would be a game-changer.
If you believe all children can learn and that great teachers deserve to be rewarded with higher salaries, then please support Senate Bill 6.
Jeb Bush is former governor of Florida and chairman of the Foundation for Florida's Future, a nonprofit that promotes education reform in Florida.