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Florida's Game-Changing Senate Bill 6

Florida Governor Charlie Crist, already desperately trying to claw his way back into the Senate GOP primary that he once dominated, has found himself in the middle of another maelstrom. Sitting on his desk, awaiting his signature or veto, is the most ambitious teacher quality legislation any state has yet contemplated. If he signs off, those teachers hired after June 30, 2010, will no longer receive tenure. Instead, they will receive a series of one-year contracts. To receive a contract after their fifth year, teachers will have to be rated "effective" or "highly effective" in two of the previous three years. Teachers hired before July 1, 2010, would have to demonstrate "effective performance" in four of the past five years when they seek to renew their teaching certificate. All teachers will have salaries set at a base level and will be eligible for pay increases linked to student performance, as well as for working in a "high priority location" or teaching in a "critical teacher shortage area." The bill stipulates that a teacher's years of service and degrees cannot be factored into the base salary plan.

This is seriously big stuff. Game-changing stuff. The bill ("Senate Bill 6," as it's known in Florida) passed the Florida Senate on March 24 on a 21-17 vote and the state house on April 9 by a 64-55 vote (this was at 2:26am, after a nine-hour session). The Miami-Herald reported that Crist watched the debate until 1:00am and "said he hasn't decided yet if he's going to veto the bill." Teachers unions are furious. No surprise there. "Teachers are incredibly frustrated," Robert Dow, president of the Palm Beach County Classrooms Teachers Association, said. "Education is falling apart. If this Senate Bill 6 is signed into law, I think it will be the death knell of education." Florida Education Association president Andy Ford said, "SB6 punishes the teachers who delivered [stunning] educational gains. It lashes out at the teachers who made Florida schools a 'model for the nation,' the same teachers Governor Crist says we're 'blessed' to have in our classrooms. Well, if SB6 passes, they won't be in our classrooms much longer."

SB6 gives Florida the chance to make a profound advance when it comes to the employment, evaluation, and compensation of teachers. It promises to shift teaching in Florida from an industrial-era profession in which teachers are treated as largely indistinguishable assembly line workers swaddled in the guarantee of lifelong employment into a 21st century profession that recognizes performance and expects professionals to merit their keep.

For my money, those seeking to portray SB6 as "anti-teacher" reflect a profound misunderstanding of just how existing tenure and compensation policies stultify and deprofessionalize teaching. Teacher tenure was first adopted in the first half of the 20th century as a response to states and localities brazenly firing teachers for being overweight, having suspect political views, or getting pregnant. The concerns were real and the protections had much merit. However, expansive employment protections now guard all public workers from capricious treatment, rendering the added costs imposed by tenure unnecessary. "Step-and-lane" pay scales that compensate teachers based almost entirely on seniority and degrees held made sense when an absence of reliable outcome metrics made it impossible to meaningfully distinguish among teachers; but advances in assessment and data systems now make it increasingly possible to gauge teachers on the quality of their work.

Now, all that said, it's entirely reasonable to have qualms about the bill. I certainly do. For instance, I'm leery of reformers who would too firmly base statewide metrics of teacher performance on value-added in grades 3 to 8 reading and math scores. I believe these measures, even when statistically valid, are imperfect gauges (and sometimes nothing more than pale reflections) of teacher effectiveness. I worry that cementing narrow, test-based measures of teacher effectiveness into state law is a significant problem. I prefer statutes flexible enough that they don't stifle more robust and sophisticated measures. However, given the fierce battle that the FEA and its brethren have waged against even more nuanced efforts to rethink tenure and pay, the choice is not between this ham-handed bill and a more elegant cousin but between SB6 and the status quo. Given that choice, there's no contest--give me SB6. After all, as President Obama promised in the health care debate, there'll be plenty of time to go back and tinker with SB6 to address its imperfections.

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The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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