In its first year, a teacher performance pay plan has proved so unpopular that 60 of Florida's 67 school districts have walked away from the $147.5-million pot of money. But lawmakers who are eager to blame reluctant teacher unions must now confront a disturbing trend at the district they hold up as a model. Hillsborough, the largest district to enact merit pay, has discovered that teachers in the most affluent schools are the ones benefitting the most.
That result, documented by Times reporter Letitia Stein, is precisely what school officials around the state had feared. It also works at cross purposes with the state's goal of putting the best teachers at the schools with the greatest needs, and lawmakers cannot ignore it.
Hillsborough school officials have worked earnestly on merit pay and deserve credit for their willingness to confront the daunting challenges. Under the state's Merit Award Program, at least 60 percent of a teacher's evaluation must be based on how students perform on standardized tests. That test-heavy formula has skewed the playing field.
As Stein reported, three-fourths of the roughly 5,000 teachers who received $2,100 bonuses worked at the county's most affluent campuses. Only 3 percent worked in the high-poverty schools. As if to underscore the disconnect between merit pay and other performance measures, only half of district's Teacher of the Year finalists received the bonus.
These results cannot be encouraging to other districts that have stayed on the sidelines. Many districts with concerns about disparate impacts tried to build protections into their plans but were rejected by the state Department of Education. Pinellas had seven different plans turned down before it threw in the towel. St. Lucie offered a "complexity factor" that DOE rejected, presumably, for being too complex.
The state's formula for assessing teachers is so rigid that is not clear whether DOE will allow Hillsborough to amend its plan so that teachers at low-achieving, high-poverty schools have a better chance at receiving the bonus.
These are the jarring contradictions that can result when teacher pay gets caught up in political agendas. Leave aside that Florida teachers are paid, on average, $5,700 below the national average. The state now has three different legislatively created bonus plans, for national certification and state-assigned school grades and "merit," that are based on three different sets of standards. Merit Award is the fourth different merit pay plan in the past six years.
The biggest obstacle to performance pay in Florida schools is not the unions. It's the hamhanded attempts by lawmakers and DOE to dictate how teachers must be judged. The Hillsborough experience suggests that the performance-pay law is, at best, a work in progress. Unless lawmakers are willing to give the districts more discretion, they are not likely to see the results they want. More troubling, they could end up rewarding hard-working teachers for leaving the kind of schools where they are needed most.