Florida Lawmakers Pass Merit Pay, Tenure Reforms

Published April 12, 2010

Florida’s House of Representatives has passed a bill that would effectively end tenure for new teachers and establish a merit-pay system. The state’s teachers unions loudly protested the bill, which was passed over unanimous Democratic opposition and a few no votes from Republicans.

Supporters of House Bill 7189 argued the changes in teacher hiring and assessment are essential.

“What is unacceptable is the status quo—telling a beginning teacher that no matter what you do in the classroom, there’s nothing you can do to increase your pay,” Rep. Anitere Flores (R-Miami) told the Miami Herald.

HB 7189, and its counterpart SB 6, would tie future pay increases to improvements in student performance and test scores instead of longevity and credentials. The bill passed early April 9 after more than eight hours of debate, by a vote of 64-55, with 11 Republicans joining unanimous Democrats in opposition.

Paying for Performance, Not Time

“It would be better to pay teachers for performance, rather than longevity,” said Neal P. McCluskey, associate director of the Cato Institute’s Center for Educational Freedom in Washington, D.C. “That’s not a revolutionary idea,” he added, even though the practice isn’t widespread.

But although ending a system critics say keeps ineffective teachers in place is a good idea, merit pay alone is not the answer to improving teacher quality, he says. The use of student testing as sole determinant of teacher effectiveness is flawed because exams do not always capture everything a teacher does, McCluskey says.

For example, a fourth grade exam might test addition and subtraction, but the teacher may have already advanced the students to multiplication and division. The test won’t capture that advancement.

“What you need is some leeway in assessing performance. It can’t be based on just tests,” he said.

Choice, Autonomy Called For

Even with an accurate measure of teacher effectiveness, merit pay shouldn’t be used in the absence of other structural education reforms, McCluskey said.

“What you really need is school choice and autonomy,” he said. “With autonomy, the owner of the school has the power to affect what the school does. You can offer more money to get better teachers. Parents will pay money to send their children to the best schools that they can find. Merit pay will only improve teacher effectiveness on the margins with the [education] system that we have in place today.”

McCluskey criticized Florida’s legislation for removing some autonomy from charter schools. “Charters are supposed to be independent public schools able to set their own policies, and that should include deciding for themselves how they want to compensate their employees,” he said.

He says flexibility in granting tenure can be an effective compensation tool.

“Tenure should be a form of compensation that schools could adopt, as it might be more important to good teachers than salary increases, and might be more financially beneficial to schools,” he explained.

‘Florida Is Way Ahead’

Jay P. Greene, who heads the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas, agrees with McCluskey, saying fear of losing a job is certainly an incentive for teachers to avoid poor performance. Losing one’s job for ineffective performance is commonplace in the private sector, Greene pointed out.

“No other state is anywhere close to considering what Florida is doing,” Greene said. “Florida is way ahead of the rest of the country in undertaking promising education reform policies.”

Though there isn’t much evidence about the benefits of merit pay, results from where it has been used so far suggest it “has promise for student outcomes,” Greene said. In most cases, however, what is defined as merit pay in education today is usually only a small bonus on top of a base salary and is often awarded for additional credentials, not for improved effectiveness.

“Merit pay has to be more than just a tiny bonus,” Greene said. “Otherwise, a teacher can just give up that tiny bonus by sitting on his hands and doing nothing. There should be job insecurity for low-performing teachers.”

Greene said proper implementation of a merit pay system would be very difficult because teachers unions would work to undermine it.

“It’s just like an adult who doesn’t want to eat green beans,” Greene said. “They’re too big and too strong to force it on them.”

Some Teachers in Favor

Though the unions have opposed the move to merit pay, some educators support the idea.

“Rank and file teachers around the country want to be rewarded for their performance, just like they would be in any other profession in the world,” said Andrew Campanella, a spokesman for the Alliance for School Choice in Washington, DC. “But teachers unions don’t like merit pay because it singles out great teachers and doesn’t align with [the unions’] straitjacket-like equal pay policies. If we want to treat teaching as the true profession that it is, it is well past time to reward teachers who do more.”

“Doing more,” Campanella explained, means getting better performance from students, not getting additional credentials. The most effective way to measure which teachers are doing best is to measure student performance at the beginning and end of the school year, Campanella said. “Any performance-based system should take into account student learning.”

Florida’s legislature also approved bills to roll back class-size caps and replace the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test.

Phil Britt ([email protected]) writes from South Holland, Illinois.