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Teacher Tenure and Performance Pay in Florida

Gov. Charlie Crist's veto on Apr. 15 of a bill that would have eliminated tenure for public school teachers in Florida and linked their pay to student performance on standardized tests was seen as a bellwether. But the issues raised are far from dead. As a result, this is a propitious time to take a closer look at three lessons that emerge from the state's experience.

First, tenure is a two-edged sword. Although it is given too soon in a teacher's career and has been abused, it provides teachers with due-process rights. Brooklyn Technical High School, one of four elite high schools in the New York City school district, serves as a case in point. Beginning in 2003, the New York Times reported how principal Lee McCaskill poisoned the atmosphere by "intimidating and punishing teachers." It went on to document specific acts of personal vindictiveness toward teachers that led to a teacher exodus (On Education, Jan. 28, 2004). Were it not for tenure, these talented teachers could have found themselves fighting dismissal on trumped- up charges.

Second, the logic of paying teachers based on their performance is extremely compelling. But in reality there is little evidence that it will result in the claims made for it. Vanderbilt's Peabody College and the university's National Center on Performance Incentives found no conclusive data on "the power of financial awards in promoting more-effective teaching and elevating student performance," or on "the long-term effect of performance awards on the supply of effective teachers." ProComp in Denver schools is still too new to evaluate properly.

Third, teachers as a group are unlike other professionals in what motivates them. They respond far more to psychic income in the form of the inner satisfaction they receive from reaching students and from the recognition they receive from others. Punitive strategies, such as dismissal for failing to boost scores of their students on standardized tests, will destroy their morale. In 2007, the nonprofit Public Agenda and the National Comprehensive Center for Teacher Quality found that 76 percent of secondary teachers and 81 percent of elementary teachers would rather work in a school where administrators supported them than at a school that paid significantly higher salaries.

What to make of the evidence? As Steve Chapman, member of the Chicago Tribune's editorial board, wrote: "Not that nothing works, but that few if any remedies work consistently in different places with different populations" (column, Apr. 15). So maybe Gov. Crist's veto was not the death knell of efforts to improve education quality that critics charge.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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