The Florida House is poised to ram through sweeping changes to employment rules for public school teachers this week without listening to critics or allowing any improvements to the legislation. The bill (SB 6), already approved by the Senate, would abolish tenure for future teachers and make high-stakes testing central to deciding whether teachers get raises or qualify for renewal of their teaching certificate.
Florida needs to make it easier to reward the best teachers and fire the worst. Pay should be based more on merit and less on seniority. But this plan is too punitive and shortsighted, and it could discourage good candidates or strong teachers from staying in public schools. Republican lawmakers should stand up to the House leadership that is blocking all amendments and join Democrats in insisting on some changes.
Among the changes that should be pursued:
Find more money. Lawmakers envisioned having more than $1 billion in federal Race to the Top funds to help pay for the bill's reforms. But the state didn't win the federal competition, and the bill now requires a huge overhaul with no new dollars. Starting in 2011-12, districts would be required to spend up to 5 percent of the state money they receive to implement the changes, including developing end-of-course assessments for in every grade and ultimately awarding merit pay. But school districts face flat funding, at best, in the foreseeable future. That means they would have to cut teacher pay to develop the tests that will determine raises starting in 2014-15. That's not right.
Ensure yearly student gains are measured. Republicans claim end-of-course tests will measure what a student learns in a year, but there is no language in the bill to support that promise. Most standardized testing, such as the FCAT, tests a student's knowledge — not how much a student learned in a class. Lawmakers should clarify that teachers would be judged using a more sophisticated system where a child's knowledge is tested at the beginning of the year and the end. Until those tests are available and thoroughly tested, tying 50 percent of a teacher's annual raise to the test results would be unfair.
Add coaching for teachers. The bill dramatically moves the goalposts for teachers, but it provides no resources or coaching to help them adapt. Hillsborough County's new teacher performance-pay system comes with a significant mentoring initiative. So should the state's.
Rewrite penalties for teachers found to "need improvement." All teachers would receive an annual rating: highly effective, effective, needs improvement or ineffective. Teachers hired after July 1 would not be rehired for a sixth year or any subsequent year if they had a "needs improvement" or "ineffective" rating in two of the previous three years. Starting in 2014-15, renewal of a teaching certificate would be denied to any teacher who had a "needs improvement" or "ineffective" rating in two of the previous five years. Such harsh penalties create little incentive for effective teachers to accept new challenges, because if they struggle even briefly they could be out of a job. It also creates an incentive for principals to inflate ratings for borderline teachers.
It is understandable that many of Florida's 170,000 public school teachers are outraged by this legislation. Teachers would give up tenure and clear rules on certification renewal without any certainty a new system would evaluate their performance honestly and fairly. By rushing these changes through the Legislature, Republican lawmakers are making enemies instead of building support for laudable concepts such as merit pay and accountability.
Education reform takes root when teachers embrace it. SB 6 makes that nearly impossible, and the House should make improvements and send it back to the Senate.