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Florida's Senate Bill 736: With "Wins" Like These...

Recently, I wrote about how turning reasonable discussions about issues like teacher evaluation and pay into polarizing moral crusades yields "reform" victories that amount to self-defeating, ham-handed mandates. The most recent example is the troubling, recently-enacted Florida Senate Bill 736.

As you may recall, last April, the Florida legislature passed Senate Bill 6, a serious effort to rethink teacher tenure, evaluation, and pay that then-Governor Charlie Crist ultimately vetoed. Despite my manifold reservations, I supported SB 6. I feared then that the bill's proponents were too eager to base teacher performance on highly imperfect and not-yet-existent value-added metrics, and was concerned about problems with cementing these test-based measures and the implied staffing arrangements into statute. Yet, despite the bill's flaws, I thought it would knock down anachronistic policies governing tenure and pay--and problems with overreach and excessive prescriptiveness could be addressed later (you know, the same argument that President Obama offered regarding health care reform). However, a year passed, proponents had a chance to reflect and reconsider, and there's no evidence that they improved their handiwork in any substantial way.

SB 736 still proposes to abolish tenure for new teachers (hired after 2014) and stops local districts from paying teachers simply for acquiring degrees. I think this is very good. Lord knows I endorse differentiated pay, rigorous evaluation, and tough-minded personnel management, but this stuff has got to be done smart. Rather than emulate Colorado's 2010 Senate Bill 191 and give districts leeway to craft accountability systems that may yield a variety of promising performance-based models, Florida has opted to substitute one micromanaging regime for another.

To wit, SB 736 requires that the Commissioner of Education (Commissioner) establish a learning growth model for school district use for the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT) and other statewide assessments to measure the effectiveness of instructional personnel and school administrators; that 50 percent of an evaluation is based on student performance over a 3-year period; and that school districts establish a new performance salary schedule that bases annual salary increases on performance evaluation. Indeed, the bill stipulates that, "The annual salary adjustment...for an employee rated as effective must be equal to at least 50 percent and no more than 75 percent of the annual adjustment provided for a highly effective employee." Meanwhile, districts would be prohibited from renewing an annual contract if the individual receives: two consecutive unsatisfactory evaluations; two unsatisfactory evaluations within a 3-year period; three consecutive needs improvement evaluations; or a combination of unsatisfactory and needs improvement evaluations. Can I just comment how odd it is that a Republican legislature, under a Tea Party governor, has opted to mandate that the state education bureaucracy approve each school district's teacher and administrator evaluation system?

Oh, yeah, and charter schools are also subject to all of this. Charters are required to abide by the same mandates regarding evaluation, pay, and the rest as every other Florida school. So much for that whole autonomy thing.

SB 736 relies on a yet-to-be determined "growth model" designed by the Commissioner of Education that all districts will be required to use--yet declares that the Commissioner will approve of the model by June 1 of this year and the model will be implemented this coming fall. There has also been hardly any attention paid to the costs of all this, or where the money will come from to do it well, even as Florida's Governor Scott has proposed a 10 percent cut in state edu-spending.

If schools are using staff smart--for example, having one fifth-grade teacher do the bulk of math instruction and another take the lead on English language arts--the system breaks down. If schools are piping in virtual instruction, or making heavy use of in-house tutors (a la High Tech High School or Boston's MATCH School), the system breaks down. If a school adopts New York's School of One model, with teachers sharing ownership of middle school math instruction in a slew of ways, the system breaks down. In short, SB 736 calls for a "21st century" evaluation and pay system that works only so long as schools cling ever more tightly to the rhythms of the one-teacher-and-twenty-five student classroom of the 19th century. Swell.

And none of the bill's backers seem unduly concerned that the Gates Foundation's Measures of Effective Teaching project pointed out just this winter that the value-added correlation year-over-year for a given teacher was only about .35 to .40 in math and .18 to .20 in English language arts. Especially in schools with high levels of annual attrition, three years of student data may yield no more than a few dozen observations with which to calculate performance--and that's in areas with regular, established assessments. As I said in the aftermath of the SB 6 furor, "Too often--as in Senate Bill 6 or in proposals that districts should start to publicize the value-added scores of individual teachers--we are not using value-added carefully. Instead, it is frequently treated as a casual cure-all."

None of this is cause to shy away from incorporating value-added metrics into teacher evaluation and pay. But it's cause to move deliberately, encourage experimentation, and note that respected, knowledge-based firms like Apple and 3M don't try to drive all their employees' evaluations or pay off a handful of uniform data points. Instead, they empower managers to exercise judgment--and then hold them accountable for delivering.

I'll bet right now that SB 736 is going to be a train wreck. Mandatory terminations will force some good teachers out of good schools because of predictable statistical fluctuations, and parents will be livid. Questions about cheating will rear their ugly head. A thrown-together growth model and rapidly generated tests, pursued with scarce resources and under a new Commissioner, are going to be predictably half-baked and prone to problems. All of this will fuel Florida Education Association complaints that there's no possible, workable, equitable way to make teacher pay and evaluation more performance based.

As Charles Miller, former chair of the Spellings Commission on Higher Education and a businessman who has been pushing Texas school reform for more than two decades, wrote to me the other day, "The teacher incentive pay stampede has the makings of a disaster. It's hard enough in the private sector and incentives always produce unintended consequences and often huge distortions. Imposing incentive pay on individual teachers with inadequate measures onto a culture where it is totally foreign is foolish at worst and merely hopeful at best."

SB 736 continues the disconcerting habit of imagining that policymakers in a state capital can "fix" schooling through complex mandates. Rather than create the tools and opportunities for districts and schools to do better, and then hold them accountable for doing so, well-intentioned legislators have voted to replace the old credential-and-paper micromanagement with mandates that rely way too heavily on test scores of uncertain reliability, validity, or import. By setting one-size-fits-all prescriptions that apply to every teacher in every school in the state, SB 736 manages to emulate best practices in the pay of encyclopedia and aluminum siding salesmen circa 1951.

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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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