As the Florida Legislature opens its annual session Tuesday, it will wade back into the controversial debate about how to pay and evaluate teachers. The overall concept remains valid: Public schools need to move from a tenure-based system, where seniority trumps nearly all other factors in determining pay, to a smarter one that rewards effective teachers and more quickly identifies those who need help or don't belong in the profession.
Last year's legislation embraced the right concepts but was rammed through with little or no input from teachers. It was too harsh and left too many questions unanswered, and then-Gov. Charlie Crist was right to veto it. This year's proposals already look better, and lawmakers are consulting with educators and making refinements. When the Florida Senate considers its bill, SB 736, this week, the debate will begin in a far more positive place.
But such ambitious policy demands rigorous scrutiny lest the state create a system that drives good teachers away instead of growing and attracting them. While the Legislature is moving in the right direction, significant refinements will be needed to ensure a new system for evaluating and paying teachers is fair and balanced.
TEST SCORES. The Senate's plan still relies heavily on individual student performance on standardized tests to determine 50 percent of a teacher's annual evaluation. But it would require a much more sophisticated and fairer analysis of those scores. Among the considerations would be how each student performed in the previous two years and other factors such as chronic absenteeism, disability, lack of proficiency in English or even a family tragedy. Such consideration correctly acknowledges that student performance is affected by far more than what happens in the classroom.
INCENTIVES FOR PRINCIPALS. School administrators would be judged on attracting and retaining strong teachers, and on whether they are successful in helping struggling teachers improve. They would also be judged on how well the school's students perform on testing.
TRANSPARENCY. School districts could no longer shuffle ineffective teachers between schools. Principals, before accepting a transferred teacher, would have access to a teacher's past evaluations and have the right to reject any low-performing teacher. Parents whose child is assigned to a teacher who is a chronic under-performer would be notified. Principals would seek input from parents as part of the annual teacher evaluation process.
REWARDING EXPERTISE. Districts could increase salaries for teachers with graduate degrees in the fields in which they're certified. It also allows districts to maintain incentives for teachers who earn national board certification.
NO FINANCIAL PENALTIES. Last year's plan would have financially punished school districts if they didn't comply, but this year's Senate bill is focused on policy, not money, leaving budget issues for later. That's appropriate and productive.
TEACHER PENALTIES. All teachers under the new system would receive annual ratings of highly effective, effective, needs improvement or unsatisfactory. The Senate bill reasonably requires teachers who are judged unsatisfactory two out of three years to be fired. But lawmakers should reconsider the consequences of forcing out teachers who are rated needs improvement for three years. That seems too harsh.
TESTING TOOLS. Republican leaders say their goal is to measure whether a student obtained a year's worth of learning in a year's time — but they aren't requiring an assessment that would actually test students at the beginning and end of the school year. Instead, the bill anticipates end-of-course exams or the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test. The Education Department and school districts would have discretion to do more, but lawmakers should encourage it explicitly.
MENTORING. Much of the potential for improving teacher effectiveness is encouraging on-the-job mentoring between strong and weak teachers. Many schools have embraced the idea as part of the federal Race to the Top program. The Senate bill says districts can create mentoring programs, but they are not required.
INVESTMENT. After four years of flat funding, schools have little discretionary spending to implement the reforms, from greater use of standardized tests to more rigorous managing and mentoring of low-performing teachers. There is no money to increase pay for teachers overall, fueling fears that the proposed merit pay system will reallocate existing resources and force pay cuts on some teachers to pay others more. Lawmakers should find money to help districts implement the bill next year and acknowledge they will need to invest as the economy rebounds to ensure a meaningful merit pay system.
THE UNKNOWN. Many details of this new teacher evaluation and pay system have not been written, tested or negotiated with the teachers unions. Yet, teachers would fall under the evaluation scheme as soon as this fall and newly hired ones would see their pay affected in 2014-15. The Senate bill requires the Education Department to consult broadly as it writes the rules and develops the plan — but there is no plan for an experiment to test it in a few districts first. Already, some ideas playing out in local districts that are embracing their own merit pay plans are patently unfair — such as holding teachers accountable for student test scores in subjects they don't teach. Lawmakers should consider testing key provisions in a handful of counties before rolling them out statewide.