Hillsborough's merit pay experiment benefits affluent schools

Hillsborough will try to even out its experimental system to reward its best teachers.

By Letitia Stein, Times Staff Writer
Published February 24, 2008

TAMPA - Hillsborough County's 15,000 teachers agreed last year to be guinea pigs in Florida's controversial experiment with merit pay, an issue dividing politicians and educators across the state.

The results weren't at all what officials expected.

A St. Petersburg Times investigation shows that almost three-fourths of the nearly 5,000 teachers who received merit pay worked at the county's more affluent campuses.

In contrast, only three percent of the educators deemed worthy of the $2,100 bonuses worked in the low-income schools that struggle most, where at least nine in 10 students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch.

And almost two-thirds taught in A-rated schools, where they arguably were least needed.

That wasn't how it was supposed to work. State and local officials promised that the merit pay program, tied heavily to FCAT scores, would reward outstanding teachers wherever they taught, regardless of how advanced or behind their students started out.

"That's a big concern on our part - that we be fair for all teachers," said Hillsborough testing director John Hilderbrand, who said the district tried hard to level the playing field. "I didn't assume there would be a big difference between different types of teachers."

The stunning disparities are fueling difficult questions about teacher quality and equity.

Do the best teachers gravitate to affluent schools, where discipline problems are fewer and support greater? Or are the many failing students at Hillsborough's poorest schools dragging down good teachers?

Hillsborough officials aren't plumbing those questions. Instead, they have responded to teacher concerns by revamping the merit pay program.

* * *

Hillsborough cut its first checks through the Merit Award Program in late August, after years of rancorous debate in Florida over whether to pay teachers for performance.

Supporters of merit pay said the time had come to reward results, rather than just length of service or educational degree. All teachers are not created equal, they said, so why should all be paid the same?

Critics balked at the plan's heavy reliance on high-stakes tests, saying a single day's results should not be used to define a teacher's talents. And they worried merit pay would divide a profession that prizes teamwork.

The state's plan seemed to offered a compromise. While at least 60 percent of the determination would be based on student test scores, performance evaluations also would be considered.

Teachers in Pinellas, Pasco and Hernando wanted nothing to do with it. The districts rejected merit pay, giving up millions in bonus money.

Hillsborough forged ahead, saying $10.8-million in state funding was too valuable to pass up.

"We knew the odds were going to be about one in three" of a teacher getting the award, said Jean Clements, president of the Hillsborough Classroom Teachers Association. "But that's way better than the lottery."

Under Hillsborough's plan, teachers were compared only to peers in the same subject area. To level the playing field, they earned points based on a student's learning gains, regardless of where the student started out. The points were then converted into a ranking, and the bonuses were doled out until the money ran out.

That left a lot of good teachers out in the cold.

Half of this year's finalists for Teacher of the Year - supposedly the best of the best - did not qualify for merit pay. And only two of those that did are working in low-income schools.

Then there's Kelly Campo, an English teacher at Bloomingdale High who made the cut, but hardly felt like celebrating.

"I can understand why for some of the teachers it hurts," she said. "I give my time. I give my energy. I give my money. Everything I can, I give to them. And then the district says, 'You're good, but not good enough. Sorry, we ran out of money two rows above you.'"

* * *

Even though district officials have not publicly detailed the results, teachers couldn't miss the program's disparities.

Schools with the most merit paywinners were concentrated in Hillsborough's middle to upper-class suburbs. Top award-getters included places like McKitrick and Claywell elementary schools in the northern county, where families flock to homes that feed into top-rated schools.

The numbers were less rosy at struggling Title I schools, known for the federal funding they receive to help the large numbers of students - many of them minorities - who live in poverty. About half of Hillsborough's schools qualify for Title I money. But they employed fewer than one-third of merit pay recipients.

School officials acknowledge the inequities.

"Even though we had hoped - and mathematically it should have worked the way we wanted it to - it didn't have the level of equity that we had hoped to achieve," said Michelle Watts, Hillsborough's supervisor of data analysis, who oversaw the merit pay calculations.

At least one high-poverty elementary school, Sulphur Springs, had no award winners when the district ran the numbers last spring. At almost two dozen schools, fewer than 10 percent of eligible educators received the bonus. All but one of them were high-poverty schools.

Those results can be interpreted in different ways, said University of Florida professor David Figlio, who has studied merit pay issues.

Students take different paths to learning, he said. Children who live in homes where there is money for books and enrichment activities could be expected to do better at school. This would seem to give an advantage to their teachers.

But maybe it's better teachers that make the difference. Figlio pointed to national research that shows the strongest, most qualified teachers tend to move from low- to higher-income schools when given the chance.

"It's not all teachers," he said. "But disproportionately, they do move to higher-income schools."

Too often, the most challenging schools also end up with the least experienced teachers.

Hillsborough had only 31 elementary schools where teachers averaged a decade or less experience in 2005-06, the most recent year that state data is available.

About 70 percent of them were high-poverty schools.

* * *

To counter these trends, Hillsborough officials in recent years have offered experienced teachers a 10 percent salary boost if they transfer to one of the district's highest poverty schools.

Sue Creekmore, a veteran teacher with three decades experience and prestigious national board certification, took the challenge three years ago, leaving a school near Brandon's comfortable suburbs to come to high-poverty Clair Mel Elementary.

She thrilled last year at watching a fifth-grade student blossom in her language arts classroom. She expected her to be one of the top performers on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test.

But on test morning, the child walked in with slumped shoulders and a desolate expression. She had gotten in trouble at her foster home. Her punishment was not getting to see her birth mother that weekend.

The child's test scores plummeted.

"Is that a reflection of my teaching? I hope not," said Creekmore, noting that another student struggled after his father was incarcerated the weekend before testing. "These kinds of incidents are real, and they happen often."

Sherman Dorn, an associate professor of education at the University of South Florida, shares the view that student test scores can provide a flawed measure of teacher effectiveness.

"I think it's a myth that you can tinker with the formula and get something that people agree with when it's based on test scores," Dorn said.

But Hillsborough school officials are determined to try, even if they have to engineer equity into the results.

This year, they plan to break elementary and middle school teachers into separate categories based on a school's Title I status. In high schools, where poverty figures are less reliable, instructors will be tracked by course level.

The move guarantees teachers will earn merit pay awards in equal numbers at high- and low-poverty schools. But it also means that fewer teachers at the affluent schools will receive money this year.

Leigh Crosson, a teacher at Bevis Elementary, sees the changes as making an already divisive system even worse.

"You don't change the numbers or the math because people either don't understand it or are upset by the data," said Crosson, who works at one of the county's most affluent schools. "You can't get emotionally connected to the numbers. As a math teacher, they are what they are."

The new plan doesn't address every inequity. Schools with the neediest students still could see fewer teachers earning merit pay. Even among the Title I schools, campuses with lower poverty rates had more recipients.

School officials say they can only do so much to ensure results without completely losing the goals of merit pay.

"If I break it into too many groups, then I think we increase the possibility that the top person in some groups may not be truly exceptional," said Watts, the data analyst. "Not saying they're not good, but we try to reward our exceptional teachers."

The former social worker in Watts wished she didn't have to draw that line.

"Everybody should get something," she said.

Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Letitia Stein can be reached at lstein@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3400.