Florida's first application for a federal Race to the Top education grant failed when only five of the state's 67 teachers unions gave their support. The state was schooled in a necessary, if obvious, lesson: Reform will succeed only if teachers are intimately involved and on board. They are the ones in the classroom, and they know better than politicians what will work.
Lesson learned. Last month, in hopes of getting a $700 million grant in the second round of applications, Gov. Charlie Crist convened a diverse group that included a teacher of the year and representatives from teachers unions, the Florida Chamber of Commerce and others that share a common interest — improving students' education.
The group produced a solid "memo of understanding" laying out principles of school reform. It was sent to school districts last week, and the Pinellas County Teachers Association announced its support for the memo Friday, becoming the first big district union to do so. The memo deserves to be signed by each superintendent, school board chair and teachers union representative across Florida. Decisions are due later this month.
Most important, the work of this group shows the kind of cooperation and compromise — and budding trust — that was absent in the drafting of the original memo of understanding and also in the acrimony over the infamous teacher-bashing of Senate Bill 6, which the governor appropriately vetoed.
The new memo ties teacher evaluations — and a chunk of their raises — primarily to student performance. But it requires the state Department of Education to consult with teachers and others to develop "a fair and transparent student growth model" that understands that not all students are equal and that some classrooms will be far more difficult than others. Local districts have much more discretion with less state interference to establish fair pay systems that are still based on student achievement, and the system would be phased in as suitable evaluation systems are developed. Teachers who are up for multiyear contracts or other important moments in their careers would deserve and get a more thorough review that is based on far more than test scores.
Seniority for teachers would matter in case of layoffs and the like, but only as a tiebreaker for teachers who are tied in effectiveness.
The memo would allow districts to pay teachers more for, among other things, teaching in difficult school settings, for taking on longer school days if that is the best way to boost a low-performing school and for teaching in critical shortage areas such as science and math.
Also, Race to the Top money could be spent on the neediest schools where it would have the greatest effect and would not have to be spread so thinly that it does little good anywhere.
In short, this new memo shows a serious team effort to draft a successful application. It lays out a blueprint to spend that money effectively if the state wins a grant. It would continue this new, more collaborative effort by requiring a task force — similar to the one that drew up this new memo — to monitor how the Race the Top program is working in Florida.
The memo starts to build the kind of trust necessary for all parties to look out for the best interests of Florida's schoolchildren. While hardly flawless, it is a worthy document that deserves to be signed.