Teacher excellence and the bottom line

A Times Editorial
Published December 12, 2007

Only in the stingy and helter-skelter world of Florida education reform can too many excellent teachers be deemed cause for concern. But that's how Senate education appropriations chairman Stephen Wise actually reacted to news that Florida led the country last year in nationally board certified teachers.

Wise is worried about the bottom line, because those teachers are taking advantage of pay bonuses under the state's "Excellent Teacher Program." With 8,136 taking part, the tab last year was $70.9-million. "If we're going to pay $70-million," he told a reporter, "I want at least some kind of evaluation of the outcomes and whether it makes significant difference in kids' performance."

Whether national board certification is the right way to measure teaching excellence is a reasonable question. But it is pertinent to note that the author of this program, Jim Horne, was a previous Senate education appropriations chairman who went on to serve as Gov. Jeb Bush's first education commissioner. Horne told his colleagues in 1998: "I can think of no better education reform than making sure we have quality pay for quality teachers."

That's how reform works in the Capitol. One connected legislator gets an idea, and the rest are obliged to make it a law. Unfortunately, bonuses are also what substitute for genuine job compensation in a state that pays its teachers $5,508 less per year than the national average. Bonuses are cheaper because fewer teachers get them, and lawmakers can still use them to pad their re-election resumes.

If Wise is serious about examining the worth of teacher bonuses, he should start with two more costly programs that have never received serious scrutiny.

One is "School Recognition," a Bush creation that has grown from $28-million to $129-million in the past eight years and is based on a school grade that may bear little relationship to the efforts or qualifications of teachers. The money is typically split equally among all teachers in a winning school, regardless of their individual performance.

The other is the $147.5-million performance pay plan that lawmakers rushed into law this year. State education officials and key legislators were so insistent on tying the pay bonuses to standardized tests they have managed to produce yet another rebellion from teachers and School Boards. At last count, 55 of the state's 67 school districts say they want no part of it. And that number could grow.

If the intent of bonus pay is to provide incentives for teachers to work hard, then at least the "excellent teacher" plan is based on quantifiable work. Much in the way teachers are paid more for postgraduate degrees, it rewards them for undertaking a rigorous, year-long series of self-examination and evaluation. It also rewards those who go on to mentor other teachers.

That so many Florida teachers have earned national board certification ought to be a source of considerable pride. In any profession, such commitment deserves reward.