Florida Mayor Touts Principal Merit Pay

Published January 1, 2007

A Florida mayor with a pioneering vision for education reform has given new priority to rewarding successful school leaders.

In October, St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker unveiled the High School Principal Incentive Program, which will provide financial bonuses to principals and assistant principals whose schools improve their rating on Florida’s School Accountability Report (SAR). The SAR issues letter grades to all Florida schools based on measured levels of achievement and growth in reading, math, and writing from the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT).

To receive an A on the SAR, a minimum of 95 percent of a school’s students must be tested. Participation below 90 percent can reduce a score. At least half of the lowest-performing pupils must demonstrate improvement for a school to earn a C or better.

Struggling High Schools

Leaders of five St. Petersburg high schools with 1,500 or more students are eligible for the bonuses, to be given out after the new SAR is released in June 2007. In 2005-06, St. Petersburg High School earned a B. Northeast High and Gibbs High earned Cs, while Dixie M. Hollins and Lakewood notched D ratings.

“Our high schools are the schools that struggle the most academically right now,” said Deputy Mayor Dr. Sarah Lind, who oversees schools and policy. “This is our last chance to have a positive impact on the lives of our students before they become adult citizens in our community.”

Under the new incentive program, principals receive $10,000 for each letter grade of improvement achieved by their school. At the discretion of the principal and school superintendent, an assistant principal may obtain a bonus worth as much as $2,500.

The incentive program expands on the first year of Baker’s Top Apple award program, which gives similar but smaller bonuses to elementary and middle school leaders. High school administrators are no longer eligible for Top Apple awards, as they can earn more through the new incentive program.

Scientific Research

“There’s plenty of research that points out good schools are led by good administrators,” said Terry Boehm, executive director of the Pinellas Education Foundation, a private partnership that acts as a fiscal agent for Baker’s program.

A 2003 report from Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning, a Colorado-based nonprofit group that promotes applied research, found “a substantial relationship between leadership and student achievement.”

In 2004, scholars from the University of Minnesota and the University of Toronto identified leadership quality as representing “about a quarter of total school effects” and revealed the “impact of leadership tends to be greatest in schools where student needs are most acute.”

‘Gutsy Move’

Boehm applauded the new incentive program as part of a “corporate approach” he said is badly needed in public schools.

“I know it probably tests the comfort level of those who enjoy the status quo, but at the end of the day the principals should be held accountable, and they should also be rewarded if their schools are doing well,” Boehm said. “It’s a gutsy move. He’s not going to make everyone happy.”

Local teachers’ union officials rank among the dissatisfied.

“I think we could come to some other useful means to make that money more directly aligned to student achievement or teacher quality,” said Michelle Dennard, president of the Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association (PCTA). “I know [Baker] had good intentions to bolster leadership, but the head can’t do without the body–all the teachers and all the support personnel.”

While some analysts may worry the merit-based approach would exacerbate a “teach to the test” mentality, at the expense of a well-rounded education, others said it wouldn’t necessarily pose a problem.

“If the test is testing the standards agreed upon in the state, we want them to be teaching to the test,” observed Lewis Solmon, president of the National Institute for Excellence in Teaching, a California-based group promoting teacher quality.

Incentives for Teachers

Baker’s other innovative incentives, unveiled since he took office in 2001, include offering as much as $18,000 in housing loan forgiveness for St. Petersburg residents who commit to teach in the city’s schools for up to 10 years, and the Dale Hickam Excellent Teaching Program, which gives teachers with National Board certification a salary increase worth 10 percent of the state average.

In addition, Florida’s Special Teachers Are Rewarded (STAR) Program makes $6.1 million available to the top 25 percent of Pinellas County teachers, based at least partly on learning gains made by their students. A school district can claim the legislative appropriation if it submits a performance pay plan approved by the State Board of Education.

Dennard rejects the STAR Program, too. “They want the rest of us to agree that 25 percent should get the bonus,” she said. “It’s like an insult to offer me a bonus when you’re not paying me the national average.”

According to the National Education Association, Florida teachers earned an average salary of $41,587 in 2004-05, while the national average was $47,808.

Multiple Measurements

Dennard said any rewards given to school employees “should be based on multiple measures, not just the FCAT.” She cited parental involvement, volunteer involvement, and safety factors as examples for “a complete report card on what’s a good school environment.” Also, some of St. Petersburg’s schools “have challenging populations that will never do well” on the state assessment, she said.

Lind, however, highlighted an example of achievable success. Despite the fact that 78 percent of its students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, the city’s Mt. Vernon Elementary School moved from a D in 2001 to an A in 2004 on Florida’s SAR.

Mt. Vernon is a beneficiary of the state’s Partnership to Advance School Success (PASS) program, which provides corporate funding and mentorship from business leaders to help change how low-performing schools function.

‘Shining Star’

Over the five years he’s been mayor, Baker’s initiatives have helped to train hundreds of city and business employees to mentor underprivileged students and have matched 80 corporations with 47 city schools to provide various services. Having made a commitment to provide private scholarships to 1,000 students in his city, Baker has already given away 600 and collected funds for 125 more, said Boehm.

“I don’t know any other [mayor] who is raising millions of dollars for education or who is placing such a high priority on schools,” said Boehm.

Baker also meets monthly with Pinellas County Superintendent Dr. Clayton Wilcox to share ideas and chart progress.

“The partnership with the district is important,” Lind said. “They tell us whether it’s a good time to launch [a particular] program, and we really work together.”

Even his recent critics are impressed with the overall direction of Baker’s reform efforts.

“He’s a shining star,” Dennard said. “He has a vested interest in wanting the schools to be successful.”

Ben DeGrow ([email protected]) is a policy analyst for the Independence Institute, a free-market think tank in Golden, Colorado.

For more information …

“Balanced leadership: What 30 years of research tells us about the effect of leadership on student achievement,” by T. Waters, et al., Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning, 2003, http://www.mcrel.org/PDF/LeadershipOrganizationDevelopment/5031RR_BalancedLeadership.pdf

“Review of research: How leadership influences student learning,” by K. Leithwood, et al., University of Minnesota Center for Applied Research and Educational Improvement and Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at The University of Toronto, 2004, http://www.education.umn.edu/CAREI/Leadership/ReviewofResearch.pdf