Teachers from Marion and Alachua counties protest Common Core and standardized testing outside as former Florida governor Jeb Bush, not pictured, speaks Feb. 10 at the Keeping the Promise: A Florida Education Summit, sponsored by Bush’s Foundation for Florida’s Future, at the Florida State University Alumni Center in Tallahassee. (Phil Sears/AP)

Over the summer, the Florida Legislature agreed to spend $44 million to fund a scholarship program that will award big bonuses to teachers who got high SAT and ACT scores before entering college — even if they took the test decades ago and can somehow locate their scores.  The proposal was so, well, kooky, that it didn’t make it through the Republican-led Senate during the legislature’s spring session, but it rose from the dead in a June special session and turned up in the 2015-16 Florida education spending budget.

In this post, Florida teacher Melissa Halpern writes about what this program reveals about the state’s education agenda in general, a critical view that is far different from anything you will hear from Jeb Bush, the former Florida governor who is running for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination and who touts his education reform credentials.

Halpern is a longtime Palm Beach County teacher and founder of the Florida Professional Teaching Force, an organization that advocates for restored dignity and efficacy in the teaching profession. She recently graduated from the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

By Melissa Halpern

The layers of absurdity that make up Florida’s new “Best and Brightest” teacher incentive program may seem impenetrable, but if we dissect them, we’ll find a lot that’s wrong with the state’s education agenda.

The $44 million program, pushed through by Miami Rep. Erik Fresen during the summer legislative session, promises to reward teachers up to $10,000 for the SAT and ACT scores they earned as high school students, potentially decades ago.

In order to qualify for the reward, returning teachers need to have been evaluated as “highly effective” (another issue in and of itself), while new teachers only need the scores (in the 80th percentile). The ostensible premise of this scheme is a correlation: high-performing teachers tend to have high SAT and ACT scores.

Let’s start with the very notion of rewarding a correlation. Incentives work when people have the power to respond to them with effort and action, when they can initiate a cause of success. What if studies found that teaching performance correlated with race, gender, or socioeconomic status (all of which are correlated with SAT scores, by the way)? Would we ever find it acceptable to offer a gender bonus? Of course not. Aside from being discriminatory, such an incentive would be illogical; it offers no room for effort, no goal to work toward.

Sometimes it’s difficult to discern which correlations are actually causal, but common sense helps. While a teacher’s 20-year-old SAT score is probably not the cause of her success in the classroom, her training, credentials, and years of experience might be; incidentally, these are all proven correlations with teacher performance that Florida has downplayed under its current “merit pay” system, which replaced the old experience-based salary schedule in 2010.

For experienced Florida teachers, obtaining a “highly effective” evaluation may prove even more challenging than digging up SAT scores in the 80th percentile or above. Currently, evaluations are based in part on classroom observations by administrators who have been instructed to strictly limit the percentage of highly effective ratings they give. Teachers are also evaluated on students’ “growth” as demonstrated by test performance. Depending on what subject or grade they teach, their evaluations may even be tied to students who have never set foot in their classrooms. Compounding this injustice is the fact that “growth” is more difficult to achieve among the highest and lowest performing students. A teacher of already-high-performing students might not get “growth” points if even one of her students scores slightly lower than he did on a previous assessment.

It seems, then, that the Best and Brightest incentive is not really an incentive at all, and that whatever it is, it certainly wasn’t devised to reward experienced teachers in the first place.

So who does stand to benefit from this program? Primarily new teachers, especially those who might like to grab a bonus for a short teaching stint, and bail for a career that actually pays. Teach For America corp members, who are only held to a two-year teaching commitment, might just fit the bill.

Interestingly, teachers coming out of TFA tend to populate the revolving employment doors of charter schools run by for-profit companies — much like the ones with whom Rep. Fresen happens to have close business ties.

It shouldn’t come as a shock that a Florida legislator might vote for a financially motivated policy in the name of public education — at least it makes their ultimate goal of privatizing education a little more transparent.

The Best and Brightest scheme, however absurd and demoralizing, isn’t the problem; it’s just one tiny manifestation of the monstrous threat to public education we’re up against. If we care about equal access to quality education, we need to invest our resources in the selection and preparation of teaching candidates; we need to compensate and evaluate teachers fairly; and we need to move beyond a test-centered model of education.

Florida’s real best and brightest want to join a selective and highly-esteemed profession with potential for upward mobility, something we’ll never be able to offer if we keep wasting millions of dollars on bogus legislation, excessive standardized testing, and flawed evaluative instruments peddled by private interests.