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State forcing teacher bonuses

Pinellas is stingy with extra pay; Hillsborough's more generous. State officials insist that bonuses be paid everywhere.

Published July 6, 2005

Pat Kousathanas spent oodles of hours last year compiling a 3-inch-thick portfolio to apply for a state-mandated bonus. But the health teacher at Carwise Middle School in Palm Harbor never really had a chance.

To be eligible for what is called performance pay, a teacher in Pinellas must net 90 points out of 100 on a score sheet that measures student achievement, leadership abilities and other factors.

Kousathanas wasn't board certified, had never been a teacher of the year and hadn't received a grant recently. Minus 10 points. She had never made a "home visit," either. Minus 2 points.

Game over.

Even if Kousathanas had mustered enough points, she would get the 5 percent bonus only if the students at her school made 20 percent gains on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test - gains no school in the county made.

In the end, not a single Pinellas teacher last year got the extra money.

"Doesn't that tell you there's something wrong?" Kousathanas said.

The state Department of Education is threatening to crack down on districts it believes are flagrantly violating the spirit of the performance pay law.

Only two Pinellas teachers have ever earned the bonus - both in 2003, the program's first year. But in Hillsborough, 794 teachers have earned bonuses and up to 1,000 more are expected to this year.

The Legislature created performance pay several years ago to bring a more businesslike model to teacher salaries, which are based almost completely on seniority and educational degree. But many districts, pressured by teachers unions, developed voluntary plans with so many hurdles that few teachers applied.

Now the department is crafting a new rule it says will leave less room for interpretation. And for districts that still don't get the message, the state Board of Education gave Education Commissioner John Winn the green light last week to threaten the withholding of millions of dollars in state funding.

"We pay elementary PE teachers the same that we pay advanced placement physics teachers," said K-12 chancellor Jim Warford. "It's not a good model. It's an 80-year-old model that needs to change."

Developing the new rule is expected to take five months, then districts will have time to revise their plans.

Among the issues to be worked out: how to gauge the performance of teachers whose students do not take the FCAT.

An even bigger issue: how much emphasis to put on FCAT scores for the rest.

State officials say the FCAT is likely to be a major factor, but teachers are resistant.

"When you put too much emphasis on numbers . . . you get into murky waters," said Julie Hasson, a teacher at Lithia Springs Elementary who otherwise supports performance pay. "There should be multiple indicators of (student) growth."

Some districts will have a harder time retooling than others.

The Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association was bitterly opposed to performance pay and helped set the eligibility bar so high that union chief Jade Moore said it would "make it nearly impossible" for any teachers to earn them.

Hillsborough is more flexible and leaves much of the bonus-granting power in the hands of principals.

"They're on the front lines," said Connie Gilbert, who oversees Hillsborough's performance pay plan.

The Hillsborough plan also does not put as much of a premium on FCAT scores. Students must show improvement for a teacher to be eligible for a bonus, but there is no threshold. Whether the gains are enough comes down to a principal's determination.

"If you have a classroom of exceptional education students, their gains might be small, but it's still appropriate" to give the teacher credit, Gilbert said.

* * *

Performance pay is almost universally accepted in the business world, but deeply controversial among teachers.

Many teachers say excellence comes in different stripes, and it's difficult to compare one teacher to another. Some say the state criteria lean too heavily on scores and statistics.

The state is "following a business model . . . but children are not products," said Michelle Dennard, president of the Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association.

Critics also say the state hasn't sent districts extra money to fund performance pay, so districts must dip into the existing salary pot to make it work. Last year, Hillsborough spent $1.4-million on bonuses for teachers and administrators.

Meanwhile, Florida teacher salaries lag in the bottom half nationally.

For the education department to now threaten districts with loss of funds is "ludicrous," said Mark Pudlow, spokesman for the Florida Education Association.

"You say you have to give more money to teachers who are outstanding, and if you don't, they'll take money away from you?" Pudlow said. "This is theater of the absurd."

Those who support performance pay say it's the existing system that makes no sense.

"Every time there's more money on the table, everybody gets an equal share, regardless of their contribution or ability," Warford said. The public wants teachers to be paid more, "but I don't think they want to see every teacher paid more; the very best and the very worst."

Teachers come down on all sides.

Every profession has good and bad representatives, and their pay usually differs accordingly, said Mary Lineberger, an English teacher at Tampa's Davidsen Middle School. "I think the good teachers should be rewarded," she said.

But getting a bonus doesn't necessarily mean you're a better teacher, said Nancy Tondreault, a 14-year veteran at Bauder Elementary in Pinellas who earned performance pay in 2003.

Hard work has a lot to do with it, she said. So does luck.

"You never know who is going to be in your class," she said.

Ron Matus can be reached at 727 893-8873 or

[Last modified July 6, 2005, 00:50:11]

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