Fla. Board Approves Merit-Pay Plan As Critics Urge Further Deliberation
Tallahassee--Florida's Board of Education put the final touch this week on plans to distribute merit pay to superior teachers next fall, despite warnings from a variety of sources that those plans may be doomed to failure.
"I happen to think this is a very solid beginning," Gov. Robert Graham said, hailing the Florida career-ladder plan as the nation's first statewide merit-pay system.
Governor Graham said that he is aware that the plan is not a "panacea" for all of the problems of public education. But he insisted that "we are on our way to something that is going to be important to the quality of education in our state."
About 5,000 teachers identified as outstanding--4 percent of the state's teaching force--will be rewarded in December with $3,000 bonuses under the schedule approved last Tuesday.
To qualify, teachers must have a master's degree in the subject they teach, four years of teaching experience, including two in Florida, a good classroom performance evaluation, and a passing grade on a competency test in the subject they teach.
They also must have no unexcused absences for two of the last three years.
The teachers selected for bonuses this fall will receive the title "associate masters" and will be given the stipends for three years.
At the end of that period, they will be eligible to apply for "master teacher" status, which brings annual bonuses of $5,000 for an additional three years.
The career-ladder plan is one of several teacher-incentive concepts adopted by the 1983 Florida legislature. But it is the only one required that must, by law, be carried out during the 1984-85 school year.
The other plans are expected to be phased in over the next few years. They include incentives to attract good teachers to inner-city schools and stipends for individual teachers or schools as a whole whose students make significant academic gains from one year to the next.
Representatives of teachers' unions have complained bitterly that Governor Graham and his colleagues on the board of education are moving too swiftly, lured by the publicity Florida will receive if it distributes the first merit-pay checks in the nation.
Some contend that Mr. Graham is in a race with Gov. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee to become the first governor with a working merit-pay plan.
"If you continue on the present impossible timetable, the plan, unfortunately, will fail," Pat Tornillo, president of the Florida chapter of the American Federation of Teachers, told the state board.
The state is still in the process of deciding on the observers who will conduct the evaluations between April and October and of validating the survey they will use in evaluating teachers, he argued.
Also unresolved are the logistics of finding three evaluators for every teacher who applies for master-teacher status. That process may be hampered by the threatened boycott of the program by some teachers' organizations. One of the three evaluators must be a teacher in the same school as the master-teacher candidates.
"What do I do if I qualify [for merit pay], but you don't have enough observers to get around to evaluating me?" asked Sam Rosales, head of an independent teachers' union from the Tampa area.
Business leaders, who lobbied heavily for the new ranking system, have expressed similar concern in past weeks about moving ahead with a plan before the details are worked out.
"The state can ill afford a false start," contended Tom Bronson, president of Florida Mining and Materials Corporation and a member of the advisory committee created to oversee the educational reforms, in-cluding the master-teacher plan, that were mandated by the 1983 legislature.
The committee, whose members include business leaders, lawmakers, and educators, has also found fault with the career-ladder plan, saying that it fails to require that teacher promotion be linked to academic gains by students and that it unwisely uses a master's degree as a criterion of excellence.
And those concerns have been heightened by the new report of a policy analyst who is working on the plan.
Michael Kane, formerly associate director of the National Institute of Education and now executive director of the master-teacher commission, said the career-ladder plan mandated by the legislature and put into effect last week will prove "excessively costly, educationally disruptive, and unlikely to be able consistently to distinguish teaching that is associated with increased levels of student outcomes."
The state board of education did vote to delay part of the implementation schedule when it adopted a last-minute amendment calling for the bonus checks to be sent out in December rather than in October. With that schedule, classroom evaluations could be conducted throughout October, instead of in September during the opening weeks of school.
Mr. Tornillo had asked the board to take full advantage of the law's provision that the first checks need not go out until May of 1985. And in January, Curtis Peterson, president of the state Senate, suggested the need for an even longer delay.
"I think the whole thing might take two or three years" to put in place correctly, the Senate leader said.
But House Speaker Lee Moffitt has supported Governor Graham's push to distribute merit-pay by the end of this year.
"There's always a way to not do something," Mr. Moffitt said. "If we'd follow that, we'd never get anything done. You have to take some risks to achieve anything."