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Performance Pay Law Not Paying Off for Top-Rated Teachers, According to Report

Florida lawmakers passed a pay-for-performance policy in 2011 requiring that the most effective teachers earn the biggest salary awards each year. But a recent report has found that many districts pay out more money for teachers who earn an advanced degree than they do for those earning top performance ratings.

In 16 of the 18 Florida districts studied, the route to higher pay is via higher education. A master's degree merits teachers a salary bump four times greater on average than a "highly effective" rating, according to the report published on Wednesday by the National Council on Teacher Quality, a Washington-based research and advocacy group.

In Brevard County Public Schools in the 2016-2017 school year, for instance, a teacher who scored a "highly effective" rating received an additional $445 after cost-of-living adjustments. But a teacher with a master's degree earned a salary bump of more than six times that, an extra $2,868.

The chart below shows how awards for performance and degree status play out in the other districts studied.

Chart1_NCTQ_pay.jpgYet Cathy Boehme, legislative specialist for the Florida Education Association, considers the chart misleading to the casual observer. She stressed that the performance awards are cumulative: That $445 in the first year with a "highly effective" rating in a Brevard County Public School becomes $890 the second year the rating is earned. So, potentially, after seven years of earning the top rating, a teacher will have added $3,115 to her yearly pay, surpassing the yearly master's degree pay bump.The report does point this out, but takes issue with how long it takes for a top rated teacher to catch up. The graph below shows the breakdown for each of the districts studied.

FullSizeRender-34.jpgPay for Performance or Advanced Degrees?

Even so, the report argues that the discrepancy between salary awards for advanced degrees and "highly effective" ratings flies in the face of decades of research that has concluded that teachers with master's degrees are no more effective than teachers without one.

"Schools should be investing in what matters most, teachers who day in and day out, year in and year out pull off miracle wins with kids," NCTQ president Kate Walsh said in a statement. "Instead districts are forcing teachers to spend precious time and dollars to earn degrees which rarely add value, and distract from the job of teaching. This is a lost opportunity for Florida's school districts, teachers, and students."

Stephen Sawchuk explores the master's degree conundrum in this 2009 article in Education Week. He reports that indeed some of the most prominent performance-pay models, such as Denver's ProComp plan, allow teachers to make more for earning master's degrees, despite little proof that such degrees correlate with student achievement.

But Sawchuk also points out in the same article that research shows that in certain content areas, such as high school mathematics and science, holding an advanced degree bears a positive relationship to student achievement. And, as the NCTQ report mentions, Florida teachers can only earn the master's degree pay if the degree is in their content field. So a biology teacher must earn a master's degree in biology in order to qualify. A degree in school administration or another field would not cut it. (In many states this is not the case; a master's degree in any subject will do.)

There are two Florida districts included in the study that pay top-rated teachers more than those who earn advanced degrees: Hillsborough County Public Schools and Duval County Public Schools. Hillsborough teachers rated either "highly effective" or "effective" get a pay bump of $1,216, while those who earn an advanced degree earn nothing extra. Duval teachers rated "highly effective" get a pay bump of $2,084, while teachers rated "effective" or who earn an advanced degree get "$1,042.

Everyone Gets an Award

Yet another part of the pay for performance system that the NCTQ takes issue with is the fact that most teachers qualify for salary awards, with nearly 98 percent of teachers earning a rating of either "highly effective" or "effective." 

"This is essentially paying existing teachers more for what they've already been doing," said Matthew Springer, an assistant professor of public policy and education at Vanderbilt University who studies merit pay. "Now, maybe all teachers deserve more pay in Florida. I'm not going to weigh in on that. But if the intent of the system is to reward and recognize the highest performers and somehow fundamentally alter the quality of those labor markets, then yeah, we wouldn't expect that 98 percent of teachers hit that mark."

The chart below shows the breakdown of "highly effective" and "effective" teachers in the 18 Florida districts studied.

Chart2_NCTQ_effective.jpgWhat's the Florida Education Association's take? Teachers deserve to be paid a fair wage, and that's not the case in the Sunshine State. "So we feel as though working on a performance-pay schedule when you're in the bottom 10 percent of the states in terms of teacher pay is probably not the right objective," said Boehme.

She argues that the state should focus on what she sees as a more effective strategy for attracting and retaining teachers. Start with raising pay for all teachers, Boehme said, and "provide them planning time and leadership opportunities, get teachers involved in writing curriculum and, my goodness, just respect them."


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