3/3/08

Teacher unions oppose parents on merit pay

Many teachers hate the idea of tying their pay to student scores on standardized tests. But a St. Petersburg Times education survey finds many parents do not share their disdain. When asked what they thought should be the most important factor in determining teacher pay, 30 percent of respondents with children in Florida schools picked standardized test scores, while 32 percent chose years of experience and level of college degree. Two other choices got much lower responses.

"That teacher has to somehow be rewarded or not rewarded for their actions," said Betty Lininter, 61, a retired nurse who cares for a niece attending Lecanto Middle School in Citrus County. "It shouldn't automatically be, 'You're here five years, you get this.' If your kids aren't passing, there's something wrong."

The results come just as the issue of performance pay - one of the most talked about education initiatives in the country - is again heating up in Florida.

Key lawmakers are frustrated that only seven of the state's 67 county school districts signed up for the state's performance-pay bonus plan, called the Merit Award Program. Apparently so is Gov. Charlie Crist, who unveiled a proposal last week that seeks to prod districts into participating by sweetening the financial pot.

Meanwhile, questions about MAP continue to mount. The Times reported Feb. 24 that the vast majority of bonuses awarded to Hillsborough teachers went to more affluent schools. The story raised questions about both the formula for MAP - which is based on test scores and principal evaluations - and the distribution of top teachers.

Lee-Roy Marks, whose daughter attends Pleasant Grove Elementary in Inverness, said paying teachers based on their experience makes sense. Veteran teachers "know what works and what doesn't," he said.

He and other parents also said awarding bonuses on scores from the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test - which is the case for many teachers participating in MAP - gives even more weight to a test they think is already overemphasized.

"It's not the kid anymore," Marks said. "It's the test."

In Florida and beyond, teacher pay hinges almost entirely on years on the job and level of academic degree. Backers of performance pay think if pay is instead tied to student performance, teachers will work harder and smarter, with better teachers earning bigger paychecks and more students getting up to snuff academically.

Opponents worry that performance pay will introduce a corrosive competition into what is often a team effort. And even some supporters concede that rating teachers by student test scores can be dicey.

The Times survey found the vast majority of Florida parents gave their children's teachers high marks 46 percent rated them as excellent and 34 percent said good. They also agreed by large margins that the average Florida teacher salary of about $46,000 over 10 months was not enough. (Sixty-five percent said it was too low, while 31 percent said it was appropriate.)

On performance pay, the survey found parents with children in school were more supportive of tying test scores to pay than the public at large.

Both parents and respondents overall ranked student test scores as their No. 1 choice when asked which of five options they thought was the best measure of teacher quality. But when asked what should be the biggest factor in determining teacher pay, 18 percent of the public chose test scores, compared with 30 percent of parents.

Supporters found the numbers encouraging, but not surprising.

"Most parents work for a living in an environment where their pay is directly related to performance," said Rep. Joe Pickens, R-Palatka, chairman of the House Education Council.

Mark Pudlow, spokesman for the state teachers' union, wasn't surprised either.

"Maybe parents want to have their children taught by someone who is both experienced and can get results by the only gauge that you gave them an option on, which is standardized tests," he said. "That doesn't strike me as odd."

A battery of surveys shows teachers have mixed feelings about performance pay, with some showing negative feelings toward systems that factor in test scores. Last year, for example, a teacher survey in Washington state found only 17 percent approved of such a system.

In Hillsborough, a survey of teachers released last fall found 49 percent agreed or strongly agreed that performance pay for individual teachers was a positive change, compared with 28 percent who disagreed or strongly disagreed.

But the same survey, by the National Center on Performance Incentives at Vanderbilt University, also found that nearly two-thirds of Hillsborough teachers believed performance pay would "destroy the collaborative culture of teaching," while 85 percent said state and local officials should be more concerned about raising base pay. The MAP bonuses in Hillsborough were $2,100.

In a twist, the Times survey also asked how involved parents should be in evaluating teachers. Few, if any, performance pay systems factor parent evaluations into the mix.

But 91 percent of the public at large, and 95 percent of parents, thought parents should have a say.

The Times survey was administered to 702 registered voters Feb. 6 through Feb. 10 and has a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points.

(sptimes.com)

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