Fla. to Link Teacher Pay To Students' Test Scores
Critics Worry About Fairness

By Peter Whoriskey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 22, 2006

HIALEAH, Fla. -- A new pay-for-performance program for Florida's teachers will tie raises and bonuses directly to pupils' standardized-test scores beginning next year, marking the first time a state has so closely linked the wages of individual school personnel to their students' exam results.

The effort, now being adopted by local districts, is viewed as a landmark in the movement to restructure American schools by having them face the same kind of competitive pressures placed on private enterprise, and advocates say it could serve as a national model to replace traditional teacher pay plans that award raises based largely on academic degrees and years of experience.

Gov. Jeb Bush (R) has characterized the new policy, which bases a teacher's pay on improvements in test scores, as a matter of common sense, asking, "What's wrong about paying good teachers more for doing a better job?"

But teachers unions and some education experts say any effort to evaluate teachers exclusively on test-score improvements will not work, because schools are not factories and their output is not so easily measured. An exam, they say, cannot measure how much teachers have inspired students, or whether they have instilled in them a lifelong curiosity. Moreover, some critics say, the explicit profit motive could overshadow teacher-student relationships.

"Standardized tests don't measure everything in a child's life in school," said Andy Ford, president of the Florida Education Association, which is appealing the new pay policy to a state administrative judge. "We should take a look at the total education and not just what they can put on a bubble sheet."

The pay program approved last month by the Board of Education is mandatory and intended to ensure compliance with a 2002 Florida law requiring performance pay for teachers. The policy comes amid growing debate about the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT), which Bush has put at the center of his school-restructuring plan.

The tests are already used to determine whether students pass or fail certain grades, and schools that test well, or better than the previous year, are rewarded with bonuses that are typically divided among teachers and staff, amounting in some cases to more than $1,000 a year.

Many schools now hold elaborate pep rallies for students before the tests, as North Twin Lakes Elementary did here recently. Dressed in T-shirts that said "We can do it!" the children sang to the tune of Lou Bega's hit "Mambo No. 5."

Put a little FCAT in my life/A little bit of reading by my side/A little bit of writing is all I need . . .

I'm doing good on FCAT/Yes I am .

"The FCAT doesn't measure everything, but what does?" asked Principal A. Louise Harms, who has presided over significant improvements in test scores at the school. "It gives you something to shoot for."

But with such successes have come complaints. Under pressure to score well on tests, some school districts have moved school start dates back to early August to complete extra weeks of instruction before March exams. This has aroused the ire of many parents, and others have complained that with the tests have come too much pressure and too much homework.

The centerpiece of the new effort, known as E-Comp, requires all school districts in Florida to identify the top 10 percent of each variety of teacher and award them a 5 percent salary supplement. For an educator earning the average teacher salary in Florida of $41,578, that amounts to just over $2,000.

Controversy surrounds how that top 10 percent of teachers will be identified.

Those who teach FCAT subjects -- basically math and reading -- will be ranked exclusively according to how much their students have improved their scores over the previous year. Teachers will earn points when they advance their students from one level of proficiency to another.

Those who teach other subjects must also be ranked according to "objective" measures that the districts are supposed to design. State officials overseeing those efforts are pushing to have teachers evaluated on test scores and other objective assessments, even for subjects such as music and art. A music test, for example, might involve playing a selection and asking students what type of music was played, officials said.

"We don't have all the answers today," Education Commissioner John Winn said when asked how music, art and special-education teachers will be evaluated. "But we will work with teachers to develop a system."

Although only the top 10 percent in each field will receive the 5 percent salary supplement, all public-school teachers in Florida will be affected by the new pay policy because their annual evaluations will rely "primarily" on "improved achievement by students," according to the new rules, a criterion that is expected to be often measured with standardized tests.

"I know it adds pressures, but what profession doesn't add pressure for performance?" Winn asked.

Schools in Houston, Denver, Minnesota and elsewhere have similarly tried to link teacher pay to performance, but those efforts have been either less focused on test scores or narrower in scope.

The Minnesota plan, enacted last July, is voluntary, and thus far more than a third of the state's 339 school districts have expressed interest in the system, state officials said. Districts that join the effort must base 60 percent of teacher raises on a handful of factors, including student test scores.

Education officials in Maryland and Virginia said that no such financial incentives for teachers are required statewide and that they know of no local school districts that operate that way. The District does not directly link teacher pay to student performance either, spokeswoman Roxanne Evans said.

Although Florida school districts are seeking to meet a June 15 deadline for compliance with the new policy, some teachers unions said delays would be inevitable because the pay plans must be worked out in county contract negotiations, which are likely to prove difficult.

One of the biggest questions, aside from how teachers of subjects such as special education and art might be measured objectively, is whether the point system will fairly evaluate teachers in schools where students are impoverished or lack English skills.

The state's point system for teacher evaluations addresses such concerns in two ways, Board of Education administrators said.

First, it awards teachers points not for test scores but for improvements in test scores, so a previously low-performing student will not necessarily drag down a teacher's score. Second, having analyzed historical test scores, the administrators think they have come up with a point system that accurately reflects the degree of difficulty in lifting students from one learning level to another.

"We did not use formulas that weigh in socioeconomic data because we expect every student has the ability to learn," said Christy Hovanetz-Lassila, director of evaluation for the state Education Department. Instead, she said, the point system implicitly takes into account poor students by treating gains from lower levels differently than those from higher levels.

The proof of such reassurances will not be forthcoming until next year's rankings. Until then, the program will be counted as a victory for those who have championed instilling more economic incentives in schools.

Paul E. Peterson, a Harvard professor of government and director of the university's program of education policy and governance, described the plan as "bold."

"Currently, there is little, if any, connection between how much a teacher is paid and how much their students are learning in the classroom," he said. "This is a step in the right direction."

But despite the enthusiasm for FCAT performance on display at North Twin Lakes Elementary here recently, Harms views the prospect of ranking teachers and paying them accordingly with some trepidation.

She said it would be difficult to assign credit for the school's test scores on a teacher-by-teacher basis.

"I don't think it can be done fairly," she said. "And I don't want to divide or pit our staff against one another. I want a team. I want unity."

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