1. The Education Gradebook

Debate grows over merit pay plan for teachers as deadline nears

Rep. Anitere Flores, R- Miami, has proposed fine-tuning.
Rep. Anitere Flores, R- Miami, has proposed fine-tuning.
Published Apr. 1, 2013

TALLAHASSEE — Sen. Anitere Flores has a simple fix for a complex problem.

The problem: Teachers have serious issues with a new formula that will be used to evaluate them and determine pay raises. Some teachers, for instance, are being judged by the performance of students they've never met.

The fix, as Flores describes it: "We are going to link teacher evaluations to the students they actually teach."

So far this session, Flores' proposal is the lone attempt by Florida lawmakers to fine tune the controversial merit-pay program set to kick in next year. Democrats, Republicans and nonpartisan education groups have praised her idea for its simplicity, and agree it's a good starting point.

But behind the scenes, the situation is much more complicated. Teachers have doubts about the model that will determine their effectiveness. And the Department of Education must simultaneously roll out new curriculum, tests and technology. So many questions linger that groups like the state teachers' union and the Florida School Boards Association are urging lawmakers to hit the brakes.

"We need to slow this down now to avoid a big hullabaloo at the end of the year," said Wayne Blanton, the association's executive director. "We only have one chance to get this right."

Whether lawmakers will listen remains to be seen.

Early in the session, Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, said he would support a delay. But the former Okaloosa County schools superintendent no longer thinks a slowdown is necessary.

"If we don't overcomplicate it, I think we can do it (on time)," he said.

The effort to revamp teacher evaluations and pay began two years ago, when lawmakers in Florida passed the Student Success Act. The controversial law put an end to teacher tenure by requiring school systems to renew educator contracts on an annual basis. It also did away with the annual salary increases known as "steps." Teachers hired after 2014 — and veteran educators opting into the program — will now receive raises based on student achievement.

To gauge teacher effectiveness, state education officials developed a value-added model that uses two years of testing data to predict student performance. If the student surpasses expectations, the teacher has made a contribution to the child's growth. If the student falls short, the teacher has had a negative effect.

Local school districts are allowed to decide what constitutes an "effective" or "highly effective" teacher, and how that translates into a raise.

Teachers, however, have doubts about the model. For one, some educators believe it is fundamentally flawed because it doesn't account for all factors that influence student performance, such as whether a child had breakfast before the state exams.

In addition, only about 35 percent of teachers teach courses that culminate with a standardized test, according to statistics from the state teachers' union. There's no such data for the remaining 65 percent.

Making matters more complicated, the new performance-pay system is scheduled to come online as Florida adopts a new, nationally recognized curriculum known as the Common Core and a new set of standardized tests. Union leaders fear teachers won't be fully prepared, and that it will show in their evaluations.

"There's not enough ink and paper in the world to describe all of the problems with the system," said Jeff Wright, who oversees public policy advocacy for the state teachers' union, the Florida Education Association. "There are so many moving parts, none of which have been validated. There is no way to fix the evaluation system we have short of starting from scratch."

The issue has already boiled over in Pinellas County. When the school system debuted its evaluation system (without the pay component) last year, teachers were confounded by the results and protested loudly. Superintendent Mike Grego said he would revisit the program and consider asking lawmakers to make changes.

The Florida Education Association is lobbying to have the merit pay program put on hold or launched as a pilot program until the kinks are resolved. The school boards association has put forth a similar idea: try merit pay in two small, two medium and two large districts, and study the results.

"If there are problems floating around the teacher evaluations, it is imperative that we delay it," said Blanton, the executive director.

The bill proposed by Flores, a Miami Republican, assuages some concerns. The proposal ensures that teachers in non-core classes, such as social studies, art and music, are evaluated based only on students they teach.

Sen. Bill Montford, a Tallahassee Democrat and CEO of the Florida Association of District School Superintendents, called the measure "a good beginning." But he said the Legislature must still address other issues, such as whether teachers will be prepared to teach the new standards required by the Common Core.

"I'm very concerned about the timeline," Montford said. "Trying to get this all in place by the deadline is going to be demanding."

Lawmakers will have one more session to tweak the program. But Montford cautioned against making significant policy changes so close to the launch date.

"If we are going to change it, this is the best time to do it," he said.

Times/Herald staff writer Tia Mitchell contributed to this report.