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Published in Print: February 22, 2006, as Fla. Ready to Demand Bonuses Based on Test Scores

Fla. Ready to Demand Bonuses Based on Test Scores

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Florida education officials are moving ahead with what would be the nation’s most far-reaching plan to tie teacher bonuses to improved student achievement, despite financial uncertainties and opposition from the state teachers’ union.

The plan, which the state school board was expected to approve this week, would mandate that the top 10 percent of Florida teachers for delivering improved student scores on state tests get bonuses of at least 5 percent of their salary, starting next school year.

Ten percent of the teachers whose subjects are not covered by states tests would also receive bonuses under the proposal. But districts have until the 2007-08 school year to determine how those payouts would be made, including what measures of “student learning gains” would be used. The measures, however, must go beyond individual classroom tests, state officials say.

“We want to reward those teachers who are the most effective in the classroom,” said Cheri Pierson Yecke, who oversees K-12 public schools under Commissioner John L. Winn. “Our plan is more aggressive than any pay-for-performance plan in any other state or city.”

The proposal is indeed aggressive as measured by the number of teachers it affects and its singular focus on year-to-year test-score progress.

The Houston school board, for instance, recently approved bonuses of $2,000 for teachers whose student gains are greater than the average on state or district tests. But Houston has about 12,000 teachers compared with Florida’s 160,000. ("Some Florida Districts Opting Not to Pay Out Performance Bonuses," Aug. 10, 2005.)

Other recent pay changes, such as in Denver and several Minnesota districts, use scores on external tests as only one factor in rewarding teachers. At the same time, Denver’s new framework is far more sweeping than Florida’s because it rebuilds the traditional pay plan on the basis of teachers’ knowledge, skill, and effectiveness. Across the country, teachers mostly get raises for years of experience and graduate credits; the Florida bonus plan leaves that basic structure untouched. ("Denver Voters Pave Way for Incentive Pay," Nov. 9, 2005.)

No State Aid

The proposed new rules in Florida flesh out a 2001 law that calls for performance pay linked to student test scores. While every district had a plan for bonuses, more than a third of the 67 school systems paid out no money last year under it, according to state figures.

No state aid was earmarked for the bonuses, though districts spent more than $12 million on them last year—a tiny fraction of the total compensation for teachers statewide. State officials say they will ask the legislature for a $55 million annual boost to the school aid budget to help districts pay for the bonuses, starting with the coming school year.

Although the new rules would require that 10 percent of teachers be rewarded, districts would be urged to raise the percentage. In the case of teachers whose subjects are covered by state tests, top performers would be determined statewide so that the proportion of bonus winners in a district could be less than 10 percent. A district, however, could choose to pay bonuses to its own top 10 percent.

Teachers’ unions have contended that with no new money coming from the state, bonuses eat into across-the-board raises in a state that already ranks in the bottom half for teacher salaries. In 2003-04, teachers in Florida made on average $40,600 and teachers nationally, $46,600.

Officials of the Florida Education Association, the statewide teachers’ union affiliated with both the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, argue that the overall effect of the plan would be to discourage teachers from coming to and staying in Florida. State officials maintain that the bonuses will help address a continuing teacher shortage.

Union Challenge

Citing the expense as one of many reasons the plan is a bad idea, the FEA last week filed an administrative challenge to the proposed rules. The union said state education department officials exceeded their authority when they came up with a statewide ranking of all teachers whose subjects are covered by state tests and determined that the top 10 percent would get bonuses.

Top of the Class

Since 2002, the state has required districts to pay teachers for their performance, but proposed rules would force them to pay out millions more.

Outstanding teachers would receive a supplement of at least 5 percent of their base salary.

Outstanding teachers would be identified in two ways:

a. The top 10 percent of teachers whose subjects are covered by state tests would be identified by the state at the elementary, middle, and high school levels, as measured by student learning gains assessed by the test. Districts would have to reward each of the outstanding teachers with a supplement equal to 5 percent of their base salary, provided that they were not subject to discipline by the district.

b. Other teachers would be identified and named as outstanding by their districts. Districts would develop a system for identifying those teachers, who would also be rewarded with a supplement equal to 5 percent of their base salary, provided that they were not subject to discipline by the district.

“It’s silly and demeaning to rate teachers using only the poorly defined ‘learning gains’ on the [state test],” Tom Ford, the president of the FEA, said in a statement. “It’s like assessing the value of a basketball coach solely on how well his team shoots jump shots.”

But Bryan C. Hassel, a co-director of the consulting firm Public Impact, in Chapel Hill, N.C., who has studied teacher-pay policy, said because the amounts involved are relatively small, it’s worth experimenting, even if the picture of a teacher’s effectiveness is imperfect.

“It’s a very promising program because it looks at improvement over time, … and it gives districts and their unions some flexibility to figure out how to make it work in the local setting,” he said

Yet that flexibility may not be enough to produce the conditions needed by a district and its teachers’ union to alter substantially the way teachers are paid—the goal of top officials for the Miami-Dade County schools, according to spokesman Joseph Garcia.

“Our interest was to put performance pay on the table” during upcoming contract negotiations, he said. “But I don’t know that the union will be willing to discuss it as a concept given the specific proposal they are fighting against.”

Vol. 25, Issue 24, Pages 26,31

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