House committee questions educator pay plan

STAR, the state's performance pay plan for teachers, may be tweaked or may be overhauled.

Published January 24, 2007

TALLAHASSEE - STAR appears to be fading fast.

Special Teachers Are Rewarded, the state's new performance pay plan, was politely but thoroughly scrutinized Tuesday during a daylong hearing before a key House education committee.

"A little tweaking can certainly go a long way," Rep. David Simmons, R-Longwood, chair of the House Committee on 21st Century Competitiveness, said in opening the meeting. "And a complete revamp is also a possibility."

The $147.5-million program, better known as STAR, was approved by the Legislature last year with the support of then-Gov. Jeb Bush. Though it aims to reward 5 percent bonuses to the top 25 percent of teachers in each school district, it has come under fire from teachers who say it puts too much emphasis on standardized tests, including the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, and from district officials who say they don't have enough time to effectively roll it out.

Even some supporters complain the plan's ambitious goals don't jibe with its deadlines. Among the problems: Developing end-of-year tests for subjects not covered by the FCAT. Crafting "value tables" so the learning gains of different students can be appropriately weighed. And working out "test security" so results aren't skewed by teachers with bonuses at stake.

"STAR is sort of like eating possum," said Larry Moore, a deputy superintendent in rural Jackson County, citing a friend from even-more-rural Holmes County. "The more you chew on it, the bigger it gets."

The House hearing echoed proceedings at the Senate PreK-12 Committee two weeks ago, where Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, the new chairman, said a "more workable" STAR plan would likely get legislative consideration. Hopefully, Simmons said after the possum comment, a revised STAR "will be like eating at your favorite restaurant."

Tuesday's speakers came from as far away as Colorado, Minnesota and Arkansas to tell committee members about alternative systems. Some performance pay plans include factors such as teacher evaluations and professional development. Others keep the emphasis on test scores, but eliminate the cap on the number of teachers who get rewarded.

"A cap is problematic," said Hillsborough school superintendent MaryEllen Elia, who also spoke to the committee. "I really believe that we can't say 25 percent of our teachers because that could be ... something that limits the opportunity for all teachers."

A pilot project in Little Rock, Ark., offers all elementary school teachers up to $11,000 in bonuses, based on a tiered scale. The bigger a student's academic gain, the bigger the bonus.

A University of Arkansas professor told the committee it works: Students in schools where teacher bonuses were awarded scored 7 percentile points higher on a national math test than peers in schools that didn't offer bonuses. The average bonus: About $5,000.

Ron Matus can be reached at 727 893-8873 or matus@sptimes.com.