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Monday, March 21, 2011

The illusion of merit pay, all stick no carrot

From the Miami Herald

by Fred Grimm

It’s a novel concept: moneyless merit pay.

The momentous education bill passed this week by the Legislature strips tenure protection from Florida public-school teachers. In return, if their students score well on standardized tests, if they wow their principals, teachers will be lavished with merit raises.

Except the legislators didn’t bother with the nettlesome matter of funding their great reform.

No money to pay for the tests. (The Obama administration will provide $700 million to get the program rolling, but school superintendents aren’t sure that’s enough to pay for the standardized tests they’ll need to cover every subject in every district, much less the staffs to administer them.)

No money to pay for the raises. “It shows us that their intentions aren’t good,” said Jennifer Smith, who teaches French at Hialeah High School. “If they had good intentions, they’d be funding the pay. This is all punishment and no reward.”

All newly hired teachers, beginning in July, can be signed only to one-year contracts. If their students ace their standardized tests, and the teachers receive favorable evaluations from their principals, they’ll be eligible for those illusionary merit raises. If they don’t do well on either count, of course, they’ll be zapped.

Current teachers, now muddling along with $5,000 a year less pay than the national average, will face a Hobson’s Choice in 2014. They can retain their tenure protection, but doing so means no raises. (Most districts haven’t given teachers a raise in two or three years as it is.)

Or they can forgo tenure, suck up to their principals and hope their students grasp just how much rides on the outcome of those despised tests, which will be expanded from core subjects to all curriculum.

If teaching-to-the-test has been rampant in the FCAT era, when teachers were pressured to drill students in test prep on behalf of their particular schools, imagine the scenario when individual teacher salaries depend on those test scores.

The disinterested kid in the back row, once a mere impediment to his school’s performance, becomes a threat to the teacher’s paycheck.

But wait. Silly me. What am I worried about? Teachers are hardly going to be teaching-to-the-test to scarf up non-existent merit pay.

The bill is quite explicit about who gets merit pay (and how two lousy evaluations mean automatic firing) but kicks the problem of finding the money for those raises down to the school districts. The districts, meanwhile, are contemplating another year of devastating budget cuts and layoffs. With no indication that Florida’s hinky economy will have them rolling in money when the full brunt of the merit pay bill hits in 2014.

“So where will the performance-pay dollars come from?” asked Sen. Paula Dockery of Lakeland, one of two Republican senators who voted against the bill. “Does that mean then that some teachers will get paid less?”

“I want specific dollar amounts,” Dockery said during last week’s debate over the mysterious issue. “I really just want to understand what the costs to the taxpayer of the state of Florida are going to be.”

But the architects of the payless merit bill weren’t saying. Rep. Erik Fresen, who sponsored the payless merit-pay bill in the House, said, “We’re not saying how much. We’re not even saying when.”

When that filtered down to Hialeah High School, it sounded to Jennifer Smith like all stick and no carrot. She figures the talk of merit pay is only a ruse, as the Republican legislative leadership pushes Florida toward privatization of public schools. Actual money for raises, she figures, is never coming.

“I love teaching,” said Smith, 31, “But if I had known the direction they were taking education in Florida, I would have gone to another state.

“This is just completely demoralizing.”

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