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Wednesday, March 23, 2011

A profession that everyone disparages, teaching

From the Sun Sentinel

by Kara Fitzpatrick

The sweeping merit pay bill passed by the Florida Legislature has many teachers worried about their future — and the future of their profession.

They fear it will discourage college students from joining their ranks, cause constant turnover and hamper recruitment at a time when one-third of the nation's teachers are expected to retire within four years. Such upheaval, they say, will affect students.

"Why does anybody want to come into a profession that everyone disparages," asked Catherine Emihovich, dean of the University of Florida's College of Education. "We're already hearing students raise questions about, 'What is my long-term future as a teacher?' "

With high-stakes testing, many experienced teachers are reluctant to mentor interns, said Robert Shockley, executive director of the Florida Association for Colleges of Teacher Education. Under merit pay, he fears that will get worse.

"They're saying, 'Why should I turn over my class to a novice when it puts my scores at risk?' " he said.

The legislation, which passed last week and is expected to be signed by Gov. Rick Scott, bases 50 percent of a teacher's evaluation on student-test data. New hires, current teachers who opt in and teachers who switch to a new school district would be on one-year contracts.

Current teachers who don't opt in would be switched to an annual contract if they receive several poor evaluations. If scores didn't improve, they could be fired.

Supporters say few workers have the job security that teachers do because keeping ineffective workers in the corporate world costs money. Good teachers have nothing to fear, while bad teachers need to be weeded out to improve schools, they say.

Under the current system, they say about 99 percent of teachers receive satisfactory evaluations, and teacher salary schedules reward longevity, not performance.

Emihovich said it takes three to five years to "really become effective in the classroom." Removing new teachers doesn't give them a chance to develop, she said.

"I think what you're going to see is a constant churning of teachers through the system," she said.

Already, the profession loses about 50 percent of new teachers within the first five years, Shockley said. Some leave because of low pay, but working conditions and morale play a big role, he said.

He said the latest estimate is that one-third of the nation's teachers will need to be replaced within four years because of retirement. Florida is likely on par with that, he said.

Karen Holme, of Wellington, removed her two children from public school last year because she thought their special needs weren't being met. She had mixed feelings about merit pay.

"I'm thinking, 'What teachers are going to want our low-performing kids?' " she said. "On the other hand, maybe teachers will speak up for low-performing kids because that will be part of their salary."

But even teachers recognized for excellence have their doubts.

Marc Horowitz, a finalist this year for Broward County Teacher of the Year, said it's frustrating not to see financial rewards. But merit pay is no guarantee of more money each year — and it overemphasizes student testing.

"In the long run, I would worry about it," he said, of the chance to make more money. "I think the evaluation system does need to change, but to tie a teacher's salary to a test is not the way to do it."

On the other hand, Heather Landstrom, of Lake Worth, says she thinks merit pay will drive economic recovery by improving schools, which, in turn, will attract businesses to the state.

The wife of an educator, she said, "I want my husband, who is a highly effective teacher, to be paid based on his outstanding performance."

Roseanne Eckert, of Sunrise, said she once had a problem with a 25-year veteran teacher. "It was like she could do whatever she wanted and no one would say anything," she said.

Still, she doesn't favor the bill. "I think this push on teachers is wrong when they're taking away so much other stuff," she said.

Some teachers said they wouldn't encourage college students to pursue teaching right now.

Robert Dow, president of the Palm Beach County teachers union, said he would only encourage those who felt it was their calling.

"I would say, 'If you're willing to flog yourself financially and otherwise for the rest of your life to pursue that passion, then teach," he said. "If you're not willing to do that, then get a different job." or 954-356-4527

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