Recruitment & Retention

Some Florida Districts Opting Not to Pay Out Performance Bonuses

By Bess Keller — August 09, 2005 5 min read
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In the three years that the Pinellas County, Fla., district has offered its more than 7,800 teachers a performance bonus as mandated by the state, exactly two have qualified and taken home the money.

To get a paycheck topped up by 5 percent, Pinellas teachers are required to have had a hand in helping students raise their test scores by 120 percent of the expected increases for their grades. The teachers must also be rated “outstanding” by their principals and demonstrate they have gone beyond the ordinary, through awards, credentials, and service.

Though Pinellas County, which includes St. Petersburg, may be an extreme, districts around the state have fallen far short of what the Florida legislature envisioned when it required them to put up 5 percent of their teacher-salary budgets for performance pay, starting in 2003, according to F. Philip Handy, the chairman of the state board of education.

As a result of the districts’ disappointing showing, Mr. Handy said, the board will direct the state education department later this month to make rules that hold districts to a higher standard.

“We have a lot more that we can be doing to make sure, at the very least, that the law will be implemented in the school districts more effectively than it has been,” he said.

The Florida state board is hardly alone in its ambition to launch plans that pay teachers based more on their performance and less on the criteria that have been the rule for decades: years of classroom experience and graduate credits. At least two states—Iowa and New Mexico—have devised systems that link performance to different pay tiers, and Arizona has also required districts to come up with ways of paying for performance.

But Florida may be unique in setting a fairly ambitious goal for performance pay while offering districts few guidelines and no new money, said Allan Odden, a teacher-pay expert at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who helped design Iowa’s system.

Both Mr. Odden and Douglas N. Harris, an economist at Florida State University who studies the teacher-labor market, said the Florida program was unlikely to get much further without clear and forceful signals from top state officials.

“You really need a lot of people talking about it to show there’s political will behind it,” said Mr. Harris. “This was a major change.”

Figures from the Florida state education department show that less than a third of the possible payout under the performance-pay provision was spent in the 2003-04 school year: about $11 million of $37.6 million of the teacher-salary spending across the state.

The new rules could be in place by the 2006-07 school year, said Pamela Stewart, Florida’s deputy chancellor for K-12 educator quality.

Yet new rules are not likely to win over those who regard basing any part of a teacher’s pay on test scores as not only unfair, but also ineffective.

The current law is ambiguous about how teachers’ performance should be assessed, but it does specify that students’ performance must be “primary,” and points to the state-mandated Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test.

‘Fundamental Absurdity’

While teachers and some of their unions are ready to consider departures from the “uniform” pay scale for those who take on more duties or the toughest assignments, or who teach in fields with shortages, using student-achievement data to determine pay remains an anathema for many educators.

And if student-achievement is measured solely by the FCAT, so much the worse, many Florida teachers would argue.

That reliance on the FCAT, basically, is the reason the Pinellas County schools have granted just two bonuses in three years.

The result didn’t surprise the director of the local teachers’ union, which under the law had to agree to the plan in teachers’ contract negotiations.

“Our purpose is to underscore the fundamental absurdity of trying to slice [teachers’ pay] like this,” said Jade Moore, the executive director of the Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association.

Ron Stone, an associate superintendent of the 114,000-student district who negotiated the teachers’ contract, was inclined to agree.

“It is very difficult to discriminate between an average teacher and an outstanding teacher,” he said. “A lot [of test gains] are dictated by the children a teacher gets.”

Withholding Aid?

The state mandate played out differently in the Hillsborough County district, which includes Tampa. There, school officials expect more than 700 of their 12,000-teacher corps to get bonuses for this past year, up from more than 500 the previous year and about 230 in 2002-03.

“We feel it’s a success,” said Constance S. Gilbert, the human-resources manager who oversees the performance-pay program for the 170,000-student district. “We feel it contributes to teaching and learning; for those teachers who work all the time, it provides some recognition.”

But Hillsborough has not limited the evidence of student achievement to FCAT scores, the way Pinellas did. “What we say to principals is, ‘The teacher must demonstrate that a majority of the students in the class has made learning gains,’ ” Ms. Gilbert said.

Teachers must also apply for the bonuses, which require effort beyond the standard job evaluation.

It’s not clear whether either district’s tack is likely to be permitted in the forthcoming revised rules. Another question is whether the performance-pay plan can require teachers to receive advanced certification from the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards for a bonus.

State officials say they could withhold millions of dollars in aid from districts that refuse to go along with the new rules.

The state teachers’ union is not impressed. Mark Pudlow, a spokesman for the Florida Education Association, which is affiliated with both the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, said that locals have been leery of the pay plan from the beginning because the bonuses have to come from the same pot of money as general salary increases.

“The concept of giving some small number of teachers 5 percent performance pay at the expense of all other employees continues to be an unpopular notion that fits with all the previous merit-pay schemes that have been unsuccessfully tried in Florida,” he wrote in an e-mail.

The only hope, he contended, lies in voluntary plans that have separate funding from the state and are devised collaboratively by school officials and the local union.

A version of this article appeared in the August 10, 2005 edition of Education Week as Some Florida Districts Opting Not to Pay Out Performance Bonuses

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