Manatee schools gear up for state-mandated performance pay

The Hechinger ReportOctober 2, 2011 

The way teachers are paid in Manatee County -- and in all of Florida -- is poised for a big shakeup in the next few years.

By 2014, all districts will have to adopt a scale that determines salary based on teacher performance, as a result of controversial Senate Bill 736.

The law also dictates that 50 percent of a teacher’s evaluation must be tied to student test scores through a complex and controversial formula known as value-added. Using multivariable calculus, value-added predicts what a student’s score on a standardized test would be, and then holds the teacher accountable for at least reaching that mark.

Proponents of the new measures hope that things like merit pay will help to elevate the teaching profession and lead to increased student achievements. But not everyone sees the change as positive, arguing that dangling more money in front of teachers won’t make a difference because they’re already working as hard as they can.

“There are a number of issues with doing” performance pay, said Bruce Proud of the Manatee Education Association, the district’s teachers union. “It’s contrary to the setting of school to think an extrinsic motivating tool would be effective.”

Most of the research on performance pay has found no significant impact on student performance. Still, a national merit pay movement, spurred by competition for grants like President Barack Obama’s $4.3 billion Race to the Top, is gaining momentum.

School districts in 45 states have some form of merit pay, according to the National Center on Performance Incentives at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn.

Those systems range widely, from providing bonuses based on test scores and classroom observations to using complex metrics for evaluations and several avenues for teachers to boost their paychecks.

Florida hopes to take the movement a step further by being the first state to supplant its traditional salary structure, based on experience and degrees, with salaries entirely determined by performance. Teachers who are rated effective and highly effective (as opposed to satisfactory or needs improvement) will earn salary bumps. These increases won’t go away the following year, the Florida Department of Education says, no matter how the teachers fare on that year’s rating.

But many, including Superintendent Tim McGonegal, question if the promise of more money will ultimately lead to better teachers. “The majority of teachers I work with didn’t get into teaching to make money,” said McGonegal, a businessman himself. “They want to make a difference in our community.”

McGonegal also is concerned about how this new mandate will be funded, noting the district is already unlikely to have the budget to implement any merit pay before 2014.

“There’s just no money out there and it doesn’t look like there’s going to be money next year,” he said. “So where will the money for performance pay come from?”

Officials at the state Department of Education, however, say that by giving districts ample time to plan and by replacing one salary structure with another, rather than trying to pay for performance on top of salaries, the plan should be sustainable.

Many parents are concerned about how performance pay will play out in the classroom. Lolli McLeroy of Hollywood fears it will drive teachers away from working with students like her 8-year-old daughter, who is autistic.

“What is going to be the motivation for teachers to teach kids who have trouble on the test?” she said. “What sense would it make if dentists got paid based on how many patients did or didn’t get cavities?”

Although the Florida Education Association signed on to the state’s Race to the Top application, which included plans for performance pay, they are suing against the specific law, arguing that it infringes on their constitutional rights to collectively bargain. The MEA, which did not sign on to Race to the Top, supports the lawsuit, Proud said.

Going forward, McGonegal said the Manatee district will collaborate with the union on developing any performance pay plan.

Seventh-grade science teacher Carol Bell served on Manatee County’s committee that oversees changes brought forth through Senate Bill 736. Bell, who works at King Middle School, said teachers are “anxious” about the changes of performance pay and the new evaluation system.

“It’s something new and different,” she said. “Everyone’s adjusting to the changes and paperwork.”

Manatee County School District has initiated the evaluative portion of SB 736. Teacher evaluations make up 50 percent of the performance pay. The committee, which includes area teachers, administrators and others, is discussing the other 50 percent, which is the value-added portion.

Performance evaluations, however, could be considered a positive.“Whether you’re a seasoned vet or a newbie, you like feedback,” Bell said. “Teachers self-evaluate all the time. We want to know how we are doing.”

About 85 percent of Miami-Dade’s 20,000-plus teachers received so-called “salary supplements” this year. Teachers were rewarded for being part of a school or team of teachers that saw improvement on their students’ FCAT scores. Individual teachers with the largest gains also got money -- a few as much as $25,000.

But many teachers there, and elsewhere in the state, have raised questions about Florida’s focus on an annual rating -- half of which will be tied to test scores. Other school districts have resolved that concern by expanding the ways teachers can earn more money.

Denver’s ProComp system is one example. By taking hard-to-fill positions like high school math teacher or going to high-need schools, participating in extra professional development or meeting two goals they set at the beginning of the year with their principals, teachers can earn from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars more each year.

Piloted in 1999, ProComp has shown promise. Teachers who were required to participate had higher first-year achievement than those hired prior to it, according to a 2010 report by the University of Colorado-Boulder School of Education, although there was no way to directly attribute the different to ProComp.

There are several examples of failed merit pay plans around the country as well. In New York City, a performance pay plan that was rolled out in 2007, with support from the city’s teachers union, rewarded entire schools on their progress in raising student test scores.

Officials scrapped the program after a study by Harvard economist Roland Fryer discovered that it didn’t lead to increased student achievement. If anything, schools that took part in the program began to do worse.

-- This special report is a collaboration of the Bradenton Herald and The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit news organization dedicated to in-depth education journalism. The Hechinger Report is an independently funded unit of Teachers College at Columbia University. Herald staff writer Angeline Taylor contributed to this report.

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