How good is teacher? Bonus plan may tell
Soon, we'll know which teachers get the rewards. But what will parents do with that knowledge?
By RON MATUS
Published February 3, 2007
For the first time, millions of Florida parents might know this summer which teachers are the best and which aren't, at least according to the state's test-heavy formula.
The coming revelation is a little-discussed but potentially huge spinoff of the state's new plan to reward teacher bonuses based on student performance.
Much of the bonus information will be public record. And given how sweeping and controversial the pay plan is, media outlets across the state are likely to publish lists of teachers who get the bonuses - and maybe even rankings of teachers who don't.
Supporters say publicity will put a much-needed spotlight on teacher quality, in the same way that school grades focused attention on school quality. They also see a new tool for parental empowerment that could be used to force schools to improve the way they hire and fire teachers.
Some school districts have suppressed information about their best teachers because they were "presumably afraid that parents will question being given a nonrated teacher," Eric Hanushek, a Stanford University professor and performance-pay expert, said in an e-mail. One of the biggest impacts of the Florida plan will be "the reaction of parents and necessity for districts to deal with the issue."
But critics who don't like performance pay or Florida's version of it say they expect a mess. They point to what happened in Houston two weeks ago as a sign of bad things to come.
After the Houston Chronicle published a list of teachers earning bonuses under Houston's new performance-pay plan, it got 400,000 hits on its Web site, hundreds of comments on its education blog and a ton of grumbling.
"On Day 1, you're going to publish the 2,100 people in Pinellas County who got the money," said Jade Moore, executive director of the Pinellas teachers union. And on day two, "the excrement will hit the rotary."
The $147.5-million Special Teachers Are Rewarded plan is the biggest and most far-reaching of its kind in the country. Supported by former Gov. Jeb Bush and passed by last year's Legislature, it requires districts to give 5 percent bonuses to the top 25 percent of teachers, based primarily on scores from the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test and other tests.
Supporters say STAR will give the best teachers more money, prod others to get better and drive gains in student performance. The expected publicity will be "further incentive for teachers to work harder," said Larry Kenny, a University of Florida professor who has studied performance pay around the country.
A lot depends, though, on whether teachers and parents see STAR as a valid measure.
STAR has been dogged not only by general criticism that teacher quality doesn't necessarily correlate well with student test scores, but by specific charges that its rollout has been rushed and that its "value tables" for weighing student learning gains are flawed.
A legal challenge is pending. Key lawmakers say STAR could be overhauled this spring. And new Gov. Charlie Crist has hinted he wants to tweak the program, even as he announced Friday that he wants to double the bonuses to 10 percent.
In the meantime, though, 5 percent bonuses are still expected to be handed out by July.
Attorneys for the Pinellas and Hillsborough school districts say the names of teachers given bonuses will be available under Florida's broad public records laws. But they disagreed about the availability of rankings, given language in Florida law that shields teacher evaluations for as long as a year.
Officials with the state Department of Education say it will not issue rankings - politically, an even thornier issue than bonuses - but it's unclear what districts might do. Information from the state and the districts will be used to determine who gets the bonuses.
Rankings will be off limits "to the extent that it's an evaluation," said Hillsborough schools attorney Tom Gonzalez. "I think it's going to depend on that."
But Pinellas schools attorney Jim Robinson said a ranking isn't an evaluation.
"It's simply data," he said.
Jean Clements, president of the Hillsborough teachers union, said it's likely her organization would challenge attempts to obtain any ranking information, citing what they see as STAR's flaws and the potential stigma for low-ranking teachers.
"When people's names are associated with something negative, it's hard to get away from that, even if you clear them later," she said.
Clements said she would encourage news outlets not to publish individual teacher names. That might put the union at odds with parents.
Through word of mouth, savvy parents have always been able to find out who the best teachers are and then work the system to get their kids into that class. But that behind-the-scenes action might now become very public, and very noisy.
"I want to know who the best teacher is," said Amira Oliver, who has two children at Bay Vista Fundamental Elementary School in St. Petersburg. And if her kids' teachers are not on the list, she said, the first thing she'll do is talk to the principal.
Dexter McCree, another Pinellas parent, said he worried the STAR formula put too much emphasis on standardized tests. But he also said teacher lists were a good idea, and he should have the right to look at them.
"It's there," he said. "You have to pay attention to it."
Ellen Kleinschmidt, a music teacher at Cypress Creek Elementary in Ruskin and a former teacher of the year in Hillsborough, said the best way to gauge teacher quality is to visit the school and see the teacher in action.
She said she doesn't mind the coming bonus list; she just doesn't put any stock in it.
If she ends up at the bottom of a published ranking, she said, "I'm just going to shrug."
Times researcher Cathy Wos contributed to this report, which includes information from the Houston Chronicle. Ron Matus can be reached at 727 893-8873 or firstname.lastname@example.org.