Merit pay hurts teachers, taxpayers

By Alex Bonus |

Opinion G logoLawmakers are forcing failed reforms on failing schools, hoping two wrongs makes a passing grade.

The Student Success Act, signed by Gov. Rick Scott on March 24, ties teacher salaries to student achievement. Starting July 1, professional evaluators will rank teachers on a four-part scale to determine their eligibility for bonuses, pay raises and promotions.

Unfortunately, the SSA overlooks a wealth of data that suggests merit pay systems are ineffective in boosting student test scores.

According to the new law, student success on standardized tests will comprise 50 percent of a teacher’s evaluation score. For teachers in subjects without state tests, measurements must be created by schools and approved by the Florida Department of Education.

The evaluations classify teachers as highly effective, effective, needing improvement or unsatisfactory. Only highly effective and effective teachers are eligible for pay raises, while teachers who consistently receive low scores risk losing their jobs.

Current teachers can opt out of the merit pay system, whereas new teachers and teachers who transfer to other schools will be restricted to the merit pay system starting July 1.

The goal — to increase student success by motivating teachers through their wallets.

The law has a range of benefits. It eliminates a tenure system that made it near-impossible for school administrators to fire experienced teachers receiving poor evaluations. It also rewards skilled teachers for exemplary work.

Many states have already experimented with merit pay laws. Both Texas and Tennessee instituted similar laws with mixed results. In both cases, studies by Vanderbilt University suggested that bonus pay had almost no impact on student achievement.

The passage of SSA in Florida is another step in a string of state education reforms over the past decade. Former Gov. Jeb Bush is credited for a range of improvements that helped pull Florida from No. 31 in 2007 to No. 5 on the 2010 “Quality Counts” report released by Education Week, a newspaper focused on education news.

One improvement was the creation of a system allowing students in low-performing districts to choose their school. Another was a grading scale that annually rates state schools based on overall educational quality.

The “Quality Counts” report praised Florida for these reforms.

However, the SSA likely won’t continue this trend. It also comes at a time when the Florida Legislature is considering education budget cuts between 7 and 10 percent.

Florida already ranks near the bottom for education spending among all states. Though the Student Success Act will initially receive money through federal grants, the law does not explain how it will fund a complete overhaul of teacher salaries and state standardized tests.

As a result, the law victimizes a range of groups. Taxpayers will bear the burden of paying for the flimsy legislation, teachers will bear the burden of being judged based on their weakest students and students will continue to bear the burden of a flawed educational system.

State courts need to reconsider the value of merit pay.

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