BY RACHEL SHARPE
Florida’s teacher merit-pay bill is a polarizing piece of legislature and has become one of education’s most burning issues. Advocates of the bill, which was recently signed by Governor Rick Scott, believe that merit-pay will help to strengthen our education system and reward teacher effectiveness by measuring student achievement. Although it is true that we must find a way to improve education in our state, merit-pay is not the answer. This is because the bill rewards only those teachers who are lucky enough to teach students who would likely already succeed due to factors such as greater parent involvement. Also, merit-pay discourages young people from wanting to pursue a career in teaching due to the lack of job security and it will inevitably discourage students and teachers creativity, as even more emphasis will be placed on teaching to the test.
Just last year, hundreds of Florida teachers and students stood on the streets protesting against Senate Bill 6, which was written to link teacher salaries to student performance. Former governor Charlie Christ responded to the massive outcry by vetoing the bill claiming it was “significantly flawed”. And yet, Governor Rick Scott saw it fit to ignore the outcry and pass a bill which contains the same flaws.
The legislation has stirred up much controversy. The bill is based on an evaluation system: half of a teacher’s evaluation will be based on their students’ progression on standardized tests, such as the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT), while the other half would be based on other factors, including classroom observation by administrators.
Merit-pay will dramatically affect the way Florida public school teachers are hired and fired. In the past, teacher’s salaries were based on seniority and advanced degrees. Now, Florida public school teachers will no longer have job security. This means that teachers whose students don’t make learning gains could potentially lose their jobs, even if they have been in the school system for many years. Also, new teachers will be subjected to one-year contracts and will only remain in the system if rated “effective” or “highly effective.” According to Catherine Emihovich, Dean of the University of Florida’s College of Education, it takes three to five years to really become effective in the classroom. Thus, the bill makes it nearly impossible for new teachers to have enough time to develop and truly make an impact.
Because the bill doesn’t favor job security, college students who are considering becoming teachers will think twice about joining the profession. No one wants to come into a profession that is so tenuous. The bill will surely have college students questioning what their long term future as a teacher could be. That factor is extremely dangerous, considering that one-third of the nation’s teachers are expected to retire within the next four years. If college students aren’t motivated to teach in the Florida public school system, the future of Florida education could be in serious danger.
Even though the salary for most occupations today IS based on performance, evaluating a student’s performance on a test is highly subjective. The merit-pay system is especially unfair for teachers who teach in lower income areas where students’ scores are statistically lower for various reasons including lack of parental involvement and even inadequate nutrition. Merit pay will also hurt teachers who teach foreign students as these students often lack the necessary language skills to perform well on a test such as the FCAT. It must be the student’s responsibility to perform well on tests, not the teachers. Although teachers can be influential figures in students’ lives, it is virtually impossible for teachers to make their students succeed if the student doesn’t put in the necessary effort. If a student never does homework, for example, that student is unlikely to succeed no matter how good the teacher is in the classroom.
The bill not only hurts teachers, but will eventually hurt the students as well. Because the merit-pay system forces teachers to teach according to the test, rather than focusing on true academic achievement, teachers become less passionate about what they are teaching. Instead of learning about classic literature or scientific theory, students must tirelessly repeat strategies that will only help them pass a standardized test. Basing teacher pay off of test scores will completely destroy our education system by limiting teachers and students’ creative potential.
With more emphasis placed on standardized tests, even the brightest students could get test anxiety and perform poorly on these exams. What if the flu hits a teacher’s classroom on test day? Should that teacher be penalized because the students who were not feeling well that day did poorly on the test?
The question of funding the merit based pay system is also a subject that is being swept under the rug. Governor Scott fails to acknowledge that there is a lack of funding for the new pay system and completely ignores that fact even as he mandates even more budget cuts for the upcoming school year. Although the state will have $700 million in federal grant money for embracing education reforms, analysts say that will not be nearly enough to provide the merit funding the system requires. School districts only have until 2014 to develop tests. Because the FCAT only covers reading, math, writing and science, separate exams must be developed for all other subjects, which will be extremely expensive. Additionally, the government has failed to consider how teachers of elective classes will be measured. Will they have to make specific subject tests for every elective course?
Furthermore, the merit pay system has not even been proven successful in other cities where it has been implemented. A study released by Harvard University economist Roland Fryer found that New York City’s school wide merit pay program didn’t really change student’s test scores in any significant way.
Though our education system desperately needs to be revamped, the merit pay legislation is fatally flawed and implementing performance-based-pay is the wrong approach to take. Why can’t the education system be more like the corporate world where employee raises are based on evaluations by superiors in the chain of command and influenced by client feedback? Parents are asked to complete a review of their school every year and yet these reviews are not usually read and not at all utilized to make needed changes in the schools.
We must all do our part to make sure the Governor knows why this bill is flawed. The merit-pay bill has already negatively affected the morale of teachers, parents, and most importantly the students, who after all, are the future of our country.