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Florida teachers earn honors, risk bonus
No. 1 in national board certification, Florida may review key program.
By RON MATUS, DONNA WINCHESTER and JEFFREY S. SOLOCHEK, Times Staff Writer
Published December 5, 2007
Lisa Wimmers, a third-grade teacher at Douglas L. Jamerson Jr. Elementary in St. Petersburg, is newly national board certified.
[James Borchuck | Times]
Nearly 1,700 Florida teachers earned national board certification this year, according to results released Tuesday, making the state No. 1 in the nation for a distinction that is widely seen as the gold seal for good teaching.
But in an ironic twist, the lucrative bonus program that has spurred so many teachers to get certified -- up to $8,540 per teacher last year -- is coming under increasing scrutiny.
Key lawmakers say they intend to review the program early next year and will consider whether board certified teachers should be more carefully monitored or rated on student performance.
Among the factors driving them: another round of state budget cuts, mixed conclusions on student performance, and a bonus payout that has more than doubled in the past five years to $70.9-million in 2006.
"If we're going to pay $70-million, I want at least some kind of evaluation of the outcomes and whether it makes significant difference in kids' performance," said state Sen. Stephen Wise, R-Jacksonville, who chairs the K-12 education appropriations committee.
Board certified teachers are aghast.
"It's insulting," said Lisa Wimmers, 26, a third-grade teacher at Douglas L. Jamerson Jr. Elementary School in St. Petersburg, who just earned her board certification. "We've put in the effort."
Some see the specter of the FCAT behind the latest rumblings. And some say that any push to make teachers jump through additional hoops will drive them away from the students who need the most help.
"Do you want teachers like me in an up-county school where my kids will score well no matter what I do, rather than working in a school where 65 percent of the kids qualify for free or reduced-price lunch?" said Sandra Brodney, another board certified teacher at Jamerson. "National board certified teachers can go where they want."
Teachers consider national board certification one of the top honors in their profession.
Overseen by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, it typically requires up to a year of intense self-analysis, videotaping and portfolio building. Brodney compared it to taking two rigorous master's degree classes. At times, it is "grueling," Wimmers said.
But Florida has long encouraged its teachers to go for it.
Since 1998, the state has awarded board certified teachers bonuses worth about 10 percent of an average teacher's salary, or $4,270 last year. The teachers earn another 10 percent bonus if they mentor other teachers working toward board certification. Both bonuses factor into their pensions.
The state also pays 90 percent of the $2,500 application fee.
Last year, Florida had 8,136 board certified teachers in the classroom, second only to North Carolina. And 11 Florida school districts now rank among the top 20 nationally, with Hillsborough coming in at No. 6 and Pinellas at No. 13.
But "if they take (the bonuses) away, I'm not sure if people are still going to do it," said Kim Faughnan, a newly board certified teacher at Trinity Elementary in Pasco.
Wise, the Jacksonville lawmaker, isn't talking about doing away with the program. He said there are no specifics yet for modifying it. He said he would get feedback from teachers.
But he also said he generally believes there needs to be a performance component. Board certified teachers are "probably daggone good," Wise said. But how can you tell without checking to see how well their students are doing?
Joseph A. Aguerrebere, president of the National Board of Professional Teaching Standards, says teachers who have undergone the rigorous certification process already have met the toughest criteria.
"Anyone who goes through this process will tell you it caused them to think about their teaching process differently," Aguerrebere said. "They've met the standard. It's documented."
Meanwhile, a board certified teacher wants to know: How do you measure student performance?
"If they want me to have wonderful scores on the FCAT," said Sharon Hogan, a 39-year veteran at B.C. Graham Elementary in Tampa, "then I'll just teach the FCAT and forget everything else I know is best practice."
At least one legislator worries about the mentoring part of the program.
Where good mentoring is happening, it's a plus for the school, said Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, a former Okaloosa County superintendent who chairs the Senate education committee. "But I also think it's very uneven."
Concerns about the bonus program are not new. In 2002, for example, then-Gov. Jeb Bush proposed to cap the number of Florida teachers who can become board certified, only to reverse course on the campaign trail a few months later.
But there are good reasons to take the latest comments from lawmakers seriously.
Despite teacher protests, Florida lawmakers strongly backed teacher merit pay plans in each of the past two years. Both put a heavy emphasis on student performance. And nationally, the idea of tying teacher pay to student performance appears to be gaining traction across the political spectrum.
Meanwhile, research is complicating the issue.
One recent study that looked at Florida students found board certified teachers seemed to be effective in only some grades and in some subjects. The findings by Tim R. Sass of Florida State University and Douglas N. Harris of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, published earlier this year, are at odds with other studies that show the students of board certified teachers make bigger gains than their peers without such teachers.
"Ultimately," Sass said, "a policy goal would be to find ways to identify better teachers. The board certified process is one way of doing that, but I think we have to ask the question: Is it the most effective way?"
Now, a research panel for the National Academies, under order from Congress, is looking to see who's right, with a much-anticipated report due in spring.
In the meantime, Wise said he's going to direct his staff to look into the matter, even as many board certified teachers don't see anything to debate.
"If it's bringing better teachers into the state," said Wimmers at Jamerson, "why would they stop a good thing?"
Times staff writer Letitia Stein contributed to this report. Ron Matus can be reached at (727) 893-8873.
FAST FACTS: Board certification
The National Board for Professional Teaching Standards is an independent, nonprofit organization governed by a board of directors, the majority of whom are classroom teachers. The process involves a series of performance-based assessments that include teaching portfolios, student work samples, videotapes and analyses of the candidates' classroom teaching style. Teachers also must complete a series of written exercises that demonstrate knowledge of their subject matter and how to teach it.
For the list of new national board certified teachers, go to www.nbpts.org.