A Times Editorial

Plan for improving teaching founders

The goals sound good: Pay teachers based on whether their students actually learn anything, and pay the best teachers more. But 18 months into a massive overhaul of how Florida will evaluate teachers so the best can earn more and the worst can be fired, school districts and state officials are still struggling to figure out exactly how to do it, much less pay for it. As Gov. Rick Scott launches a fresh campaign claiming to care as much about improving public education as Florida families do, he needs to offer more than lip service. He needs to commit to a long-term plan for finding the resources to honestly implement reforms already on the books.

Scott's statewide public school tour comes as most Florida schools still cannot tell parents how teachers performed last school year. Four weeks into the new school year, districts have been unable to complete teacher evaluations from 2011-12 due to the time it has taken the state Department of Education to establish student learning gains based on FCAT scores on a teacher-by-teacher basis. The data affect nearly every teacher evaluation under a 2011 law Scott signed that is entering its second year of implementation.

This is precisely the problem anticipated by critics when the 2011 Republican-controlled Legislature rammed through SB 736 without consulting the teachers union, establishing a reasonable time frame or providing more money.

The plan sets admirable goals of measuring how much each student learns in a year and rewarding teachers accordingly. But it glossed over the extraordinary infrastructure and funding needed to make it a reality. The upshot: Most school districts haven't had the time or money to develop or purchase the beginning and end-of-course assessments needed to determine exactly how much a student learns in a given course. So instead, students' performance on the problem-riddled FCAT will determine anywhere from 40 percent to 50 percent of a teacher's performance evaluation. And that formula is used even for those teachers whose students do not take an FCAT exam in their course. Teachers such as those teaching kindergarten through second grade, or of a non-FCAT subject like physical education or Spanish, could find their evaluation affected by the average FCAT score for their school. Those evaluations already determine performance bonuses in some districts. Starting in 2014-15, they will also determine who is eligible for raises — assuming districts actually have the money to give any raises.

Long-term, there are expectations that better measurements of student learning gains will be built, particularly as Florida moves toward adherence to Common Core State Standards. But among the themes Scott heard at Madeira Beach Elementary School in Pinellas County last week, and likely across the state in private meetings with others, was honest anxiety among Florida's teaching ranks — not just union officials — about what will happen in the short term.

In a current television ad financed by the Republican Party of Florida, Scott promises to reduce reliance on the FCAT and stop "teaching to the test," without explaining what that actually means. The current state policy he approved actually will increase reliance on standardized testing for students and for teacher evaluations. Scott also boasts about boosting public school funding by $1 billion this year — without mentioning he signed off on cutting it $1.3 billion the year before as he signed into law the costly new teacher evaluation law. Scott hasn't addressed how he will ensure teachers get treated fairly.

Scott now talks a lot about improving public schools, but voters will judge him by his actions. So far, those actions are not those of a governor who believes in the value of public education.

Plan for improving teaching founders 09/15/12 [Last modified: Saturday, September 15, 2012 5:31am]

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