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Panel Opposes Florida Merit-Pay Plan

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Tampa, Fla--Florida's new merit-pay system for teachers relies too heavily on such conventional factors as teachers' educational attainment and years of service and should take into consideration student achievement, a legislatively created advisory panel has concluded after seven months of heated debate.

Whether the panel's warnings will be heeded is an open question, however, since Gov. Robert Graham, expressing irritation that the panel did not complete its work sooner, began in January to set the program authorized by the law in motion, without the group's recommendations. Leaders in both houses of the legislature have said they would like to avoid tampering with the merit-pay law during the session that began last week, for fear that opponents would succeed in killing it altogether.

The panel, called the Florida Quality Instruction Incentives Council, was established by the same 1983 legislation that created the merit-pay system, which is6scheduled to go into effect next fall. Charged with recommending ways to implement the plan, the group included teachers, business leaders, and public officials. Its report was due last Dec. 1 but was delayed when council members disagreed about the components of the plan.

No Apologies

The panel made no apologies for its lengthy evaluation of the law, saying quality was more important than speed.

"I feel we've done a superb job of getting this far," said B. Frank Brown, chairman of the commission, noting that merit pay is a complicated issue.

In the report sent this month to Governor Graham and the legislature, the commission said the main flaw in the merit-pay plan is that it does not consider students' performance in determining which teachers are the best.

Instead, the evaluation process relies heavily on two factors that already determine how much teachers are paid: the degrees they hold and how many years they have taught, the report says. And neither factor guarantees better classroom instruction, the council complained.

The merit-pay plan adopted by the 1983 legislature also calls for teachers to take tests in the subjects they teach and to be evaluated by a three-member team. But those new features will not necessarily improve teacher performance either, the report said.

Student Progress

Instead, the council recommended that evaluators look at the progress of a teacher's former students prior to determining who will be awarded merit pay.

Achievement-test scores for those students "should cover the previous three years' teaching, including student progress in the one to two years after the teacher's instruction," the report recommended.

"Evidence of consistently low levels of pupil growth under the applicant's instruction should invalidate" an application for merit pay, the report suggests.

The three teachers who serve on the 15-member panel pointed out that education researchers have warned against using student achievement as a measure of a teacher's ability, saying many factors beyond the teacher's control affect a student's capacity and willingness to learn. The teachers, who are members of the state's major teachers' organizations, oppose the re-port's recommendaàtions.

"The best way to increase student achievement is to pay students," quipped Cynthia Schumacher, a high-school teacher who served on the panel.

But another council member, Thomas Bronson, a businessman from Tampa, said the teachers were being selfish and shortsighted. When businesses do poorly, they pay the price in reduced profits, he said. But in education, when teachers perform poorly, students--not teachers--pay the cost.

"Our kids do not have an advocate, and that's what I want to be," Mr. Bronson said. "I'm convinced teacher unions are not going to do that job. They have to be advocates for the teachers."

Other Changes Urged

The report, drafted during more than a dozen meetings since September, calls for significant changes beyond the addition of student-achievement criteria to the merit-pay evaluation process.

It asks the legislature to:

Remove the master's degree requirement for "senior teachers"--the lower of the two career-ladder steps created by the merit-pay program. ''There is no consistent evidence that possession of a master's degree alone is associated with increased levels of student achievement," the report said.

Eliminate the requirement that an individual be a senior teacher in Florida for three years before becoming eligible to be considered for "master-teacher" status. (The first step results in an annual bonus of up to $3,000 and the second offers an annual bonus of up to $5,000.)

This change, the panel reasoned, would make it easier to attract strong teachers from out of state, an important consideration since 70 percent of Florida's public-school teaching force comes from outside its borders.

Have principals, rather than three-member teams, perform the classroom evaluations. This would eliminate the most costly component of the program. It has been esti-mated that the evaluation process alone could cost more than $12 million this year.

The report also warns that handing out merit pay, without simultaneously increasing base pay for all teachers, provides an insufficient incentive for the best teachers to stay in the field and the best college students to enter it.

Starting salaries are as low as $11,000 in some Florida counties, Mr. Bronson said. In some school districts, top salaries do not exceed $16,000, said Michael Kane, the council's staff director.

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