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Testing undervalues us, teachers say

In a Times poll, only 10 percent of educators support the politically popular idea of tying their salary to the performance of their students.

Published May 22, 2006

  Read other Times education polls stories

Edward Langer has heard the arguments about paying teachers for performance instead of seniority. He doesn't buy them.

Yes, Langer says, every school has teachers who spend more time monitoring the clock than their students' homework. And some educators clearly excel compared with their peers.

But keying teacher pay to student outcomes - the method usually proposed for measuring a teacher's value - seems about as fair as ranking a dentist's performance on how many cavities he fills in a year, says Langer, a seventh-grade geography teacher at Buchanan Middle School in Hillsborough County.

"To base a professional educator's pay on kids, and parents who might not stress that education, is not fair to the educator," he says. "There is no perfect system. ... Maybe the seniority thing is the least unfair."

Most teachers in the Tampa Bay area's largest school districts agree with him.

Just 10 percent of 701 Hillsborough and Pinellas County teachers surveyed by the St. Petersburg Times strongly agree with the idea of basing teacher pay on performance rather than seniority. Twenty-eight percent somewhat agree, leaving 62 percent of teachers opposed.

That meager support drops even further when teachers are asked whether bonuses should be awarded based on how much their students improve on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test. Fully 84 percent of teachers oppose that idea, while just 3 percent strongly agree.

The results cut across all demographic lines, with only slight variations.

Helene Geller, an English teacher at the Criminal Justice Academy of Pinellas Park High School, says using the FCAT to determine performance pay would be unfair to teachers working with large numbers of low-income students, many of whom get little parental support.

"They will never see the bonus, and they are the ones working the hardest," she said.

That sentiment may explain why three-quarters of the teachers surveyed agree with the idea of giving extra pay to teachers at high-poverty schools, which frequently are among the state's lowest-performing.

One thing is clear: Teachers who oppose performance pay are swimming against the tide.

Florida lawmakers and the state Department of Education have made it clear that they expect excellence from teachers, and that excellent teachers should be rewarded financially.

"Change is sometimes difficult, but I think the Legislature is definitely committed to getting away from ... the herd mentality, where everybody gets paid the same, regardless of the job they do," says Rep. Joe Pickens, chairman of the House Education Appropriations Committee. "Everywhere else in the world people are paid according to their performance, not according to their longevity."

Why the holdout among teachers?

It's complicated.

Many don't agree with equating education with other businesses. Teachers work with children, not interchangeable supplies and products. Every child is different, they say, and - here's the key - many come with baggage teachers can't overcome.

"If I have a student, which I do now, on a third-grade level and I can raise them to a fifth-grade level, who's to say that's not progress?" says Natalie Gago, a reading specialist at Middleton High School in Tampa. "Am I going to have them on a ninth-grade level? No. There's only so much I can do."

Some teachers blame parents for doing little to help their children, forcing teachers to do the work of parent and educator.

Another concern centers on evaluating a teacher's worth primarily through the FCAT. Three-fourths of the teachers surveyed reject the state tests as an effective tool for holding schools accountable. If teachers must be paid for performance, they say, more factors should be considered.

Yet some teachers don't want to entrust that job to principals, who could use evaluations to reward teachers they like and punish those they don't. They also worry about their peers, suggesting some might cheat to make their students' performance appear better than it is.

And they have doubts that, whatever emerges, the program will last long enough for them to get accustomed to it and meet its demands.

"Right now, the buzzword is performance pay. Two years from now, it will be something else," says Jennifer Lotti, a fifth-grade teacher at Palm Harbor Elementary School in Pinellas County. "I think that may be why people are averse to change, because it's constant change."

Legislation approved recently by state lawmakers will force teachers to negotiate performance pay plans with their local school boards. In addition to FCAT scores, negotiators are supposed to incorporate such factors as school demographics, job performance difficulties and additional duties.

Even so, teachers like Lotti remain skeptical.

"I really don't know how you can base pay on performance when you're dealing with children," Lotti says.

Nonsense, counters Marissa Hess, a second-grade teacher at Lopez Elementary School in Hillsborough County.

"I think it's very unreasonable to say we shouldn't be held accountable," says Hess, one of the handful of teachers who unabashedly support performance pay.

Teachers can make excuses about children's home life and the lack of parental involvement, which Hess agrees is a "crying shame." She notes that from her class of 23 children, she has met just seven parents for more than a passing greeting.

"That's an indicator of why the students aren't doing well," Hess says. "However, I'm the teacher. ... I'm responsible, and I need to be held accountable."

Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at 813 269-5304 or


The St. Petersburg Times interviewed 701 teachers in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties by telephone between May 1 and May 3. Some respondents agreed to additional interviews. The margin of error for the poll is 4 percentage points.

To see stories on earlier St. Petersburg Times education polls, go to

[Last modified May 22, 2006, 10:57:07]

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