Let’s Hear It for Florida!

Hurrah for the Education Policy Council of Florida’s House of Representatives for endorsing the bold teacher-reforms of pending bill HB 7189, now headed for the House floor tomorrow or Thursday. This pathbreaking legislation–twinned with an identical measure already approved by the State Senate–has many moving parts but three of its provisions are noteworthy. It would, in effect, abolish tenure in Florida’s public schools. It would base teacher evaluations at least 50 percent on student performance. And it would create a statewide “merit pay” plan for uncommonly effective teachers.

The folly of teacher tenure and the protection it inappropriately affords to classroom failures has become far more widely recognized.

These are precisely the kinds of far-reaching reforms that my colleagues and I called for four years ago when the Koret Task Force on K-12 Education, based at Stanford’s Hoover Institution, evaluated Florida’s Jeb Bush-era policy changes. (You can read our entire document here and the teacher-specific chapters by distinguished political scientist Terry Moe and acclaimed economist Eric Hanushek.)

Here is what our Task Force–including Paul Peterson, Paul Hill, Diane Ravitch, Caroline Hoxby, John Chubb, Williamson Evers, E.D. Hirsch, and Herbert Walberg, as well as Moe, Hanushek and myself–said should happen regarding teachers and teaching in the Sunshine State:

“Florida has long been concerned about rewarding and retaining effective teachers and has recently moved vigorously to address the issue. In 2002, the state legislature required that districts base a portion of their teacher-salary determination on student performance. Because district response to the law was slow, the state legislature, in 2006, enacted its Special Teachers Are Rewarded (STAR) program, giving it a budget of $147.5 million. The STAR program, which increases the proportion of teachers whose performance can be rewarded to no less than 25 percent, is one part of a series of innovative compensation programs the state has been introducing. For example, one program provides funding for schools based on their students’ learning gains, while others give mortgage assistance and tuition forgiveness to those who agree to teach in high-needs schools. Even more significantly, STAR allocates funds to schools based on the gains in student performance that are accomplished, giving each school a fiscal incentive to boost student performance.

“In this regard, Florida is leading the nation. Although other states are moving in this direction, none matches Florida in terms of magnitude, breadth, and focus. Still, Florida can build on its already strong policy record. For one thing, consistent with the legislation enacted in 2006, school administrators—particularly principals and superintendents—should also be rewarded for effectiveness in raising student achievement. And as part of an ongoing evaluation of its compensation policies, it needs to monitor closely the size and distribution of its performance rewards to ensure that they are competitive with opportunities in alternative professions. Only by doing so can Florida retain its highest-performing teachers and administrators.”

Much water has gone over the dam these past four years. Associating teacher evaluations with student performance, and rewarding teachers accordingly, is now all but taken for granted in state after state–and by prominent national figures, including President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan. Today we are more apt to find ourselves disputing specific programs and strategies than the basic concept. No Child Left Behind (and pre-existing programs such as Florida’s A+ Program) have begun to yield the kinds of data that make performance-based judgments possible, and Race to the Top has underscored the importance of doing this. Additionally, the folly of teacher tenure and the protection it inappropriately affords to classroom failures has become far more widely recognized.

Florida is now poised to take the next step. It’s no surprise that the teacher unions and their acolytes are doing everything in their power to defeat these measures. They do so in the name of “professionalism” but in fact they’re trying to protect an approach to school staffing that has more in common with the now-defunct steel industry and the ailing auto industry. The truth is that much solid research, mounting experience, improved data, and shifting public attitudes all point in the direction of HB 7189. I hope the full Florida House has the wisdom to follow the lead of its Education Policy Council–and I’m confident that my current colleagues on the Koret Task Force agree.

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