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Reward program puts educators on the spot

Principals at low-rated schools face the thorny prospect of singling out a few good teachers for extra money.

Clearview Elementary School Principal Denise Miller considers all of her teachers to be dedicated, hard-working professionals.

But are they outstanding?

Miller is going to have to address that question soon, and there's money riding on the answer.

Under a new state program intended to persuade the best teachers to work at academically struggling schools, principals at D- or F-rated schools are being asked to identify "outstanding teachers in critically low performing schools." Those teachers would receive bonus payments of between $1,000 and $3,500.

Educators like the idea of rewarding teachers for working with some of the most challenging children. What they don't like is the idea that some teachers in these schools get extra money, but the teacher in the classroom next door doesn't.

"I've had some teachers come up to me and ask "What if I get money and they don't?' " said Miller, principal at the D-rated Clearview Elementary. "That's a tough question. Especially at a school like mine. My teachers work really hard."

The intentions behind the new law are hard to fault. Legislators were sensitive to complaints that the state was rewarding high-performing schools with extra cash, but not doing enough to lift up low-performing schools. They set aside $12.25-million for bonuses to help retain and recruit good teachers to work in the challenging schools.

Even though the deadline for the bonus payments is Oct. 1, it is unclear how the money will be distributed. Until all the grade appeals are completed in the next week or so, it won't even be clear how many D and F schools there are. (So far, there are 267 D-rated and four F-rated schools statewide.) But it is clear that not all teachers in those schools are intended to get a cut of the bonus money.

That leaves school districts, principals in particular, to decide who gets a bonus and who does not.

"It's a bad program, but we're making the most of it," said Charles Washington, principal at Lockhart Elementary School, a D-rated school in Tampa. "It's good to get some recognition, but it is unfair to everybody to do it this way. There's a lot of teachers I'd like to put in there."

"They're putting us in a tough position," said Pasco Superintendent John Long. "With rare exceptions, most of the teachers in the low-performing schools are doing an outstanding job. I know the FCAT (the test from which school grades are derived) might not indicate that, but I don't agree with the FCAT."

Long said Pasco has not devised a system for determining which teachers are outstanding, but he said he was considering a plan that would leave it to teachers to nominate each other.

In Hillsborough, principals make the nominations. But those nominated must meet certain criteria. For instance, they must have had good annual evaluations, they must serve on school committees, must have achieved National Board Certification or been nominated for their school's teacher of the year.

"We wanted to make it more objective, but it will be tough for a principal," said Richard Martinez, chief negotiator for Hillsborough schools. "But they know who does the best job at their schools."

In Pinellas, teachers at D-rated schools are being asked to fill out a form in which they would be assigned points for things including mastering certain academic programs such as "Math Matters," points for mentoring fellow teachers and points for working with parents. The points would be totaled, resulting in a straightforward method for measuring the qualities that define an outstanding teacher.

Mount Vernon Elementary School teacher Linda Klase has refused to participate. She considers herself an outstanding teacher, and she has test results to prove that her students are making progress and meeting the state standards. But she sees the exercise as demeaning.

"I'm sorry (my principal) was put in a position of having to do that," said Klase, a fifth-grade teacher who began teaching in 1971.

Even with the attempt at an objective points system, Pinellas Superintendent Howard Hinesley acknowledged the program places educators in a tough position.

He has proposed giving teachers three options: Take the money, put it into a school account or refuse the bonus.

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