As thousands of Florida teachers brace for this year's FCAT, state education officials are poised to vote on a plan that would link their pay to student scores.
The Board of Education is expected today to approve a proposal that would give some teachers a bonus equal to 5 percent of their salary. The extra pay would be based solely on their ability to show student learning gains on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test.
Touted by Education Commissioner John Winn as a way to "attract and keep the best and brightest teachers," the plan is being attacked by the state's teachers union, which has filed a legal challenge.
Local teachers also are weighing in, calling the "E-Comp" plan ill conceived, divisive and punitive.
They say a student's improvement often is the result of several teachers' efforts, not one. They question whether teachers in high- and low-performing schools will have an equal shot at the bonus. And they fear the plan will create an atmosphere that discourages collegiality and destroys teamwork.
"We've worked hard to foster a feeling of trust among faculty and staff," said Carol Dinsdale, a teacher at Mount Vernon Elementary in St. Petersburg. "This concept of pay based on individual teachers' FCAT scores could pit educator against educator."
But the question asked most often is this: How can the state use a single measure - the FCAT - to determine a teacher's worth?
"Less than 10 days of the school year determines who passes or fails, and now will determine whether an educator is considered a good teacher," said Faye Cook, a teacher at Clair-Mel Elementary in Tampa. "To me, that does not seem to be a fair way to judge teachers."
When the Legislature created performance pay for teachers four years ago, proponents said it would bring a business model to teacher compensation. Instead of paying teachers on the basis of experience and educational degree, lawmakers ordered districts to craft pay plans based on FCAT scores and other criteria.
Some teachers unions hated the idea, and pressured their districts to come up with plans so complicated that few teachers applied. Only two of Pinellas' 8,000 teachers have received bonus pay. Only five have qualified in Pasco.
Dissatisfied with what it perceived as resistance, the Department of Education devised its new FCAT-based pay plan, which would reward 10 percent of teachers in every school district. A teacher making $40,000, close to the state's average, would receive an extra $2,000.
Non-FCAT teachers also can receive bonuses. The state has not specified how such teachers will be selected, other than saying districts must use "reliable measures" that exclude teacher-assigned grades or classroom tests.
The state has said it will earmark $55-million for the plan, but neither the DOE nor Gov. Jeb Bush has included the amount in their budgets. That is a concern for union leaders.
"There have been many merit pay plans over the years," said Yvonne Lyons, head of the Hillsborough Classroom Teachers Union. "Those that were funded failed miserably when the funding disappeared."
Jade Moore, executive director of the Pinellas County Classroom Teachers Association, said any pay plan that ranks teachers according to FCAT results is "simply nuts."
"If you want to have a pay-for-performance plan that makes a difference, you take the things that you know will make a difference with students and you reward that," Moore said.
Wayne Blanton, executive director of the Florida School Boards Association, said his main concern is too few teachers would qualify for the bonus. Pinellas associate superintendent Ron Stone agreed, saying the state's plan to identify only "teachers of record" for the bonus is problematic.
"One thing we tried to do in our pay-for-performance plan was make it available not just to individual teachers but to schools where teachers work as a team to raise student performance," Stone said.
Rewarding teamwork also figured in Pasco County's performance pay plan, said Sandy Ramos, the district's assistant superintendent for curriculum and instructional services.
"We're not even three-quarters of the way through the school year and we're giving the FCAT," Ramos said. "Who is responsible for the child's learning: the teacher they have this year or the teacher they had last year?"
But the greatest discontent is among classroom teachers. Sherrie Lee, the Outstanding Educator in Pinellas County in 2001, said the real problem isn't teacher bonuses. It's paying them an adequate salary in the first place.
"Teachers are already working above and beyond their current salaries to ensure that all students succeed," said Lee, who teaches at Mount Vernon Elementary. "Suggesting that we would work harder if there were an additional pay-for-performance plan linked to student achievement implies we are currently undedicated professionals."
Jennifer Cancello, a language arts teacher at Seven Springs Middle School in Pasco County, echoed the sentiment.
"Keep your bonus money," Cancello wrote in a letter to the St. Petersburg Times. "I work for my students, not the government."
Cathy Schroeder, a DOE spokeswoman, said she was surprised to hear many teachers oppose the bonus plan.
"I don't know why they would feel that way," she said. "The department worked to make sure that teachers are awarded fairly and uniformly. They are going to be recognized for what they are committed to doing, which is increasing the learning gains of students."
Such a disconnect frustrates Cook, the Clair-Mel teacher.
"When you feel you are constantly fighting for every dime," Cook said, "you just walk away saying, "What are they thinking?' "
Florida's performance pay plan isn't the only one causing a stir.
Denver voters passed one in November. The Houston school district approved one in January. Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney recently laid out his version.
It's not a coincidence, said Andrew Rotherham, co-director of Education Sector, a nonpartisan think tank based in Washington.
The latest research shows quality teachers are the key factor in boosting student achievement, Rotherham said. And a lot of people have decided the current way of paying teachers is not working.
"It creates an incentive (for teachers) to move away from the most challenging schools, the most challenging kids," Rotherham said. "And it sends a signal to people looking at the profession that this is a profession where excellence is not rewarded."
National surveys indicate performance pay has popular support, despite opposition from teachers unions who fear erosion of hard-won collective bargaining rights.
Unions have legitimate concerns, Rotherham said. Poorly designed pay systems can be arbitrary and unfair. But at the same time, the unions' everyone-should-be-paid-the-same argument doesn't resonate with "most Americans, who wake up in the morning and go to jobs where their pay is shaped" by their results, he said.
Vivian Fueyo, dean of the University of South Florida's college of education, said she thinks most teachers would agree they should be rewarded for their performance. But the method used is critical, Fueyo said. Relying on only one data set, such as the FCAT, may not be enough to gauge a teacher's effectiveness.
Limiting the number of outstanding teachers to 10 percent, as well as eliminating them from the decisionmaking process, are additional problems, she said.
But the biggest impediment could be lack of teacher support. Unlike Denver officials, who worked closely with the teacher's union, Florida education officials didn't consult with the state teachers union until after they had a draft of their plan.
When performance pay is "forced on teachers, you have a war," said Allan Odden, professor of educational administration at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. "And if you're having a war, it's unlikely to be an incentive to improving student learning."
Times researchers Carolyn Edds and Caryn Baird contributed to this report.
How the state says its pay plan would work:
Florida officials will identify the top 10 percent of teachers in each school district based on their students' learning gains on the FCAT. Districts must name those educators as "outstanding teachers" and reward each with a supplement equal to 5 percent of their base salary. Teachers of non-FCAT subjects will be named as "outstanding" by their districts, which must develop a system for identifying them. Those teachers also would be rewarded with a supplement equal to at least 5 percent of their base salary.
ON THE WEB: Comment at Pinellas County school superintendent Clayton Wilcox's blog at www.sptimes.com/classroom.
Entry level Entry level Mid career
+ Mid career
w/bachelor's w/master's w/bachelor's w/master's
Hillsborough $32,000 $34,912 $36,037 $38,949
Pasco 33,100 35,800 38,450 41,160
Pinellas 34,000 36,150 40,050 42,200
+Mid-career varies from district to district. A mid career-teacher in Hillsborough County is one who has worked 14.5 years. Mid-career in Pasco is 12.5 years. In Pinellas, mid-career is 13 years.
Source: Hillsborough, Pasco and Pinellas teachers union Web sites