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Saturday, February 19, 2011

Senate Bill 736 hurts not helps schools

From the

by Jennie Smith

I have watched the evolution of what is now Senate Bill 736 from the monstrosity described in my last article on the subject to the present, and I will admit that there have been changes made, mostly positive first glance.

The reality, however, is that most of what educators (and many parents) loathed about last year's Senate Bill 6 is still present in SB 736...just a bit more cleverly veiled.

When I read last week the most recent version of the bill, my first reaction was pleasant surprise to find some of the more odious features conspicuously absent, and certain red-flag language modified. For instance, I noticed that the words "Professional Performance Contract" had been changed to "Professional Service Contract" (the term for the contract we currently hold). Intrigued, I read further and scrutinized the details to see if we were indeed still talking about a Professional Service Contract, like the one I have now, or if it was just putting the old name on the new product.

(For the sake of clarification, the language in the earlier version of the bill allowed teachers currently holding a Professional Service Contract, or PSC--which simply means that teachers have an expectation of continued employment and a right to due process--to "opt out" of the annual contract with its Performance Salary Schedule and choose a "Professional Performance Contract," in which teachers would be awarded a contract of three years, after which they could be renewed or non-renewed, with or without cause. They could also be terminated for a number of reasons, including test scores, during their three-year contract. Essentially, the only difference between the Professional Performance Contract and their annual performance contract was that those choosing the former would be ineligible for performance bonuses.)

To my understanding, according to the newest version of the bill, only new hires after July 1, 2011, would be necessarily subject to the annual contract. Those of us who currently hold a PSC would be "grandfathered in" and allowed to keep it. (Personally, I do not know a single teacher who would trade his or her PSC for an annual performance contract where his or her employment was dependent upon the results of students on a standardized test.) However, the contract is still vulnerable: if he is to transfer to another district, he would lose eligibility for that PSC. Same scenario if he were laid off and rehired. If the anti-union legislation in the works effectively decertified unions and nullified existing contracts, entire districts could find themselves without the choice supposedly built into the legislation. Further, the bill's sponsor, state senator Stephen Wise (R-Jacksonville) testified during committee meetings that teachers on a PSC could be terminated for student test scores during their contract, as 50% of their evaluation would be based on test scores.

If Professional Service Contracts are indeed the devil Florida Republicans claim they are, and would in effect be phased out through the implementation of SB 736, then why even allow those of currently holding PSCs to be grandfathered in? I would argue that it is to keep teachers quiet and complacent. If most teachers perceive that their own employment is not threatened by the new legislation, they will be less likely to create the uproar of last year over SB 6 or resort to more drastic measures such as sick-outs or strikes.

While I will admit that I at first breathed a sigh of relief to see that I would be able to keep my contract, upon reflection I feel that this bill is just as dangerous as SB 6, if not even more so, in part because of its subtlety--it is designed to provide a false sense of security.

But I will be more specific, and ennumerate the respects in which this legislation is bad news for public education in Florida.

Where's the money?

Let's just assume for a moment that we agreed with the main tenets of the legislation, found its evaluation system and compensation system fair and equitable to teachers, schools, districts and students, and believed that its implementation would improve education in Florida. (Obviously this is not the case, but we shall suspend disbelief for a second.)

Where is the money?

The new governor's proposed budget would reduce per-pupil spending by as much as $708. The overall loss to public education in Florida is $3.3 billion--72% of the proposed budget cuts, while education only comprises 29% of the overall state budget. Rick Scott and other Republicans have argued that these are not really "cuts" since a large part of the shortfall is a result of the end of ARRA (a.k.a. stimulus) funds, which were not there before. However, the ARRA funding filled a gap left by budget cuts that occurred before and at the time of the release of the stimulus funding--so the failure to replace those funds still constitutes a cut, even if it means only that we are seeing the results of an earlier cut with a couple years' delay.

Nowhere in the SB 736 legislation is there an obligation (or even an expectation) for the state to pay for the creation, implementation, scoring, reporting or storing of the hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of new standardized tests that would necessarily be created by the enactment of the bill. (In order to evaluate teachers by test scores, they would need test scores for every subject; currently the FCAT only tests reading, math, writing and science.) This means a lot of new tests will be needed. Tests are expensive and divert precious resources away from the classroom--from books, technology, building maintenance and, yes, teacher's salaries. When the Miami-Dade County school district is facing up to $214 million in lost funding, and already anticipating layoffs, programs cuts and salary cuts, where should they find the money to create, administer, score, analyze and report thousands of new end-of-course exams? By packing more kids into classrooms, in violation of the Class Size Amendment (and common sense)? By cutting arts, music, vocational and physical education programs? By allowing outdated schools to crumble and mildew? Remind me how this will benefit the children taking those tests to determine their teacher's income and employment?

Moreover, nowhere in SB 736 is it said how the performance bonuses will be funded. Indeed, no funding is allotted for them. This means that current salaries--already below the national average, especially considering the cost of living in South Florida--will stagnate, at best, or be cut, in order to leave money for the bonuses. It does not make sense to cut what are already deficient salaries in order to allow some teachers to be given bigger bonuses. Once the base salary is adequate to account for the cost of living differential, then we can talk about merit bonuses. Until then, it will only weaken incentive for anyone to choose to be an educator in the state of Florida.

Teachers are not interested in working on commission, and those whose primary motivation is cashing in are arguably not those best suited for the teaching profession.

Education is not a field that attracts the salesman type of person interested in a commission job. Those who choose to become teachers do so because they want to touch lives and help children learn, grow and become responsible citizens; they want to know that, regardless how their students do on a test they did not write and indeed did not even see, they will be paid enough to live comfortably if not extravagantly.

And let us be clear: when a car salesman sells a car, he is selling it to someone who was interested enough in buying a new car to come to the dealership and have a look around. When we teach students, we are as often as not teaching kids who would rather be somewhere, anywhere else, doing something, anything else, and who see what we are teaching them as totally irrelevant and without any substantive value, especially compared to boyfriends/girlfriends, their new iPhones, video games, Facebook, etc. Yes, a good teacher can successfully convince a majority of his or her students, at least for an hour at a time, that what he or she is teaching is important enough to be paid attention to. But that doesn't mean the student will concentrate on that material once he is out of the classroom. It doesn't mean he will choose to do homework or study for a test when he is surrounded by friends, technology, other influences, interests and sometimes other basic needs, particularly when there is no parent pushing him to do it. As a frustrated teacher blogger I read very accurately put it: "It’s not like dropping into a desert and giving people water…where they are all grateful and think you are awesome. It’s more like giving cough medicine to a hysterical three-year old with a fever and diarrhea; they’ll fight it to the death and hate you afterward." Obviously this is a bit exaggerated in many cases, but nonetheless, it is a basic truth that we are competing against a million other things for children's attention and we often lose, especially when the motivation is not there at home.

A good educator embraces the challenge of getting and keeping distracted children's attention, convincing them that the material is useful and relevant to their lives, and, perhaps more importantly, of engaging them on a personal level and helping instill in them the intrinsic value of education. But we know full well that we will not be successful in that mission with every single child. It doesn't mean we don't try; it just means that we are realistic and we know that, just as the car salesman will sell a car to perhaps only one out of every thirty prospective buyers who walks onto the lot, we will not manage to convince every single child who walks into our classroom that what we are teaching is worth knowing, or even that education is worth anything. But we still try.

The more difficult the circumstances facing the students we teach, the harder it is to convince them.

It can be discouraging, but for those of us with the vocation, we take heart in those who do end up caring. Depending on the school we work in and the student population we work with, we may end up with a lot of those or just one or two a year. Either way, they are the ones who keep us going, keep us coming in to work every day at least feigning positivity when we don't feel it (usually because of what's coming down on us from above), keep us motivated to keep doing what we do even when it feels like we're beating our heads against a brick wall.

Even those kids we do reach may fail a standardized test miserably, despite our efforts and despite their own, for any number of reasons--starting out incredibly far behind, being a poor test-taker, having mitigating circumstances at the moment of testing, etc., etc. Add to that the group of kids who do not care whatsoever--which will be a larger group the tougher the neighborhood--and you could end up with a really great teacher who works really hard and exceeds all expectations (and undoubtedly puts in a lot of unpaid time outside the classroom) who gets denied a bonus--or, more dangerously, loses his job--primarily because he chose to work with underprivileged kids.

There is nothing in this legislation to encourage anyone to go into teaching...those looking for a spectacular payday will find a thousand better options (and I would argue that anyone who views children as cash cows should not be in front of a classroom in the first place), and those with a true vocation, a true desire to educate and help kids grow and help shape a future generation of responsible citizens, will be scared away by the prospect of effectively being punished (by lower pay and non-renewal) for working with the kids whose "learning gains" will be the hardest to predict.

SB 736 has the exact same shortcomings in this respect as SB 6 did. Even when the legislation calls for paying more to those who teach in Title I (high-poverty) schools, this does not offset the fear of losing one's job due to poor student test scores. Only someone who intends to teach for a very short period of time--perhaps one, two, three years--would be willing to take that risk. Anyone planning on making a career of teaching will lean toward the option of a "safer" school--i.e., a more affluent school. Perhaps they won't receive the Title I bonus, but they have a better chance of keeping their job.

Indeed, where merit pay has been tried in American public schools it has not produced the desired results. In Hillsborough County, 97% of teachers receiving merit bonuses the first year worked in affluent schools; only 3% worked in low-income schools. A recent Vanderbilt University study found that merit pay did not affect student achievement; teachers receiving up to $15,000 bonuses produced the same results as teachers not receiving the bonuses, and the general feeling among bonus-recipients and non-recipients was that the recipients were no more effective than the non-recipients.

If merit pay is so effective, shouldn't we hold police accountable for the level of crime in a neighborhood? If the number of violent crimes stays low or decreases, they should get a raise. Those working in zones where the violent crime rate stays high or increases should be fired. Right? Only they know better...they know if they were to do that, they would have no one left to patrol the rough parts of town. It is already hard enough to find people willing to put their lives on the line every day to be police, especially in high-crime areas. If they knew they could be fired for the crime rate not going down, would they be willing to do that job? Especially when the pay was inferior to most other jobs they were qualified for, and the benefits they had had were being eroded to fill state budget deficits? Of course not. They would only apply for positions in Coral Gables, or they would choose another career.

Perhaps teachers in high-poverty schools do not face the same physical risks on a daily basis that beat cops do, but the analogy works nonetheless. Nothing in the formula reassures the one who wants to make a difference in a bleighted area. And if the "performance pay" component were modified so that police were paid, for example, by how many arrests they made, one could reasonably expect a surge in questionable arrests...and a surge in frustrated, burned-out cops.

Teacher of the Year: Fired?

Despite the bill's claim to want to reward outstanding teachers, it would still allow those same outstanding teachers to be fired for any or no reason. With the annual contracts, a teacher who received "highly effective" evaluations for years could still be let go without cause at the end of a school year.

This is one of the primary concerns of teachers regarding this legislation, and it is a concern that is far too often met with, "Well, in the private sector, an employee can get fired without cause, too. That's just the way it is." But we're not talking about the private sector; we're talking about taxpayers' money, including the money of the teacher being fired without cause. Should we not hold public institutions to a higher standard? Private corporations are given more freedoms in the U.S. than ordinary citizens are; of course they can make their own rules and fire indiscriminately, especially in ultraconservative, anti-labor states like Florida. Does that make it right? Does that mean that we should import that practice into the public sector, which is paid for not with private money and sales of a good or service, but with the taxes of the very people affected by those rules?

As a teacher, I do not feel I have any kind of "God-given right" to my job. However, I do feel that as long as I am doing my job effectively, and am not the lowest on the totem pole if layoffs become necessary (or required), a principal should not be able to fire me without giving a (very good) reason that can be proven. Some principals, like my current one, are very good, fair people who see the big picture. But many others are not; many are micromanaging, authoritarian and take personal offense to anyone who dares speak up when he sees that something is not working. Just because if, in the private sector, this were a boss being paid with private dollars, he could fire anyone for any reason or no reason at all, does not mean that when taxpayer dollars are involved the same injustice should be permitted.

The current system does not, as opponents argue, provide tenure to teachers, at least not in Miami-Dade County. There is a ninety-day procedure in place to remove incompetent teachers from the classroom. If it is not being done, it is because administration is not doing it; and there are several reasons why this can happen. 1) Many administrators are unwilling to do the observations and follow the procedures to remove the ineffective teachers. 2) Sometimes administrators need those ineffective teachers to fill other roles in the school (namely, to coach sports), and are therefore very reluctant to push an incompetency case on them. 3) Far too often, there is simply no one better qualified to fill the position. If the principal removes that teacher, he will have to find a replacement, hopefully better than the last; the class cannot be left unattended; and especially in critical shortage areas, or highly specialized content areas, it can be a lengthy process to find someone well-qualified to teach. Quite simply, if an administrator does not feel that he has a pool of highly qualified candidates to choose from to replace an ineffective teacher, he is unlikely to follow through with terminating one.

There is a recession right now, so the pool of candidates is undoubtedly larger than it would be in flush times; but it does not mean that there is an abundance of candidates who are experienced enough or well-trained enough in pedagogy to be immediately effective teachers. Teaching is part art, part science; generally people love it or hate it; it also requires a certain amount of training (as a beginner) and a certain amount of experience before anyone can really become a good teacher, much less a great teacher. Once the economy recovers, even without the education reform legislation being pushed through at the moment, it is unlikely that we will see an abundance of highly qualified, well-trained (or experienced) prospective teachers. Those who would teach, who want to live in Florida, will choose other careers; and those who must teach, but are not particularly attached to Florida, will go teach in states that respect their teachers and pay them fairly. If the legislation passes as is, and is fully implemented, we can expect to see this pool of talent shrink even further, back to having real teacher shortages--as there were when I moved here five years ago--where schools basically have to accept what they can get, and will be hesitant to remove ineffective ones, for lack of anyone better to fill their positions.

But one cannot help but cynically wonder if this is not, ultimately, the politicians' deepest wish. High turnover of teachers means fewer teachers using maternity leave, costly health insurance and pensions. And making all teachers at-will employees means they will work in such fear for their jobs that they will not question what they are told to do, even when they know it is not good for children, and they will not fight for their salary, benefits or pension. It will effectively dissolve unions, gradually phasing them out; once a majority of teachers are on annual contracts, where they have no right to due process, and where their compensation is determined by student test scores, they will have no more need or use for a union to collectively bargain their salaries. And once there are no more unions, there will be no one making demands for salary or benefits or pension; there will be no one advocating for the funding of public education, advocating against policies that are bad for children, or helping elect officials who will prioritize public education. In other words, it will save the state money. And if it saves them money (money they would like to put into corporate tax cuts, or into the hands of their cronies running private schools and charter schools) then to hell with the children who are being robbed of a quality education through their refusal to respect the teaching profession.

Continue reading on 2+2=5...SB 736 doesn't add up. - Miami Dade County Education Policy |


  1. Excellent post. Few, if any, of these concerns will be thoughtfully analyzed by those in the school "reform" camp.

  2. If merit pay is so great, lets apply it to every profession in the state. I can think of one man in particular who would be out of a job, Rick Scott!