It is reasonable to pay good teachers more money. But the challenge has been how to fairly determine who is a great teacher and who is a poor one. What matters is what an individual teacher accomplishes in a classroom, and the letter grade issued to every Florida public school says nothing about any one teacher's classroom achievements.
Yet a school's letter grade is exactly the benchmark that the Pinellas school district is using in a test program to help evaluate the performance of high school teachers in areas ranging from history to foreign languages to drama. That's too bad for a great teacher at an F school and unfairly generous to a poor teacher at an A school.
While this makes little sense, it is not entirely Pinellas' fault. The federal government's Race to the Top grants and the state are both stressing evaluating teachers based on their students' performance. That's a worthy goal, but it makes no sense to make such fundamental changes until a proper system of measures — end-of-course exams being a good example — are ready to go. A slapdash system wastes time, damages credibility and undermines the education reform that is so needed.
In its 15-school experiment, Pinellas plans to base 30 percent of each teacher's evaluation on student performance. For those who teach math or reading, that portion of the evaluation will be tied to how well their students score on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test. But for others who teach subjects not covered by the FCAT, the district is tying the teacher's effect on student performance to the school's grade. When the system is rolled out to all schools next year, student performance would count for fully half of the evaluation.
In several districts, fair-minded methods of peer and administrative review are being developed and should continue to be honed. The state Department of Education will roll out more end-of-course exams in new subjects in the years ahead. Averaged over time, they are a reasonable measure of student performance.
But until such appropriate measures of student performance are in place, it is unreasonable for Pinellas to base an individual teacher's performance even partially on an overall school grade that he or she can little influence. It's an imprecise measurement guaranteed to drive high-performing teachers away from low-performing schools that need the most help.