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School Districts Win Dollars for Merit Pay

September 25, 2010 - 6:00pm

Taking advantage of federal funds, several Florida school districts will start to implement merit pay systems even though teachers earlier this year rallied against state legislative efforts to spur the performance-based movement throughout the entire state.

Six Florida districts have won millions of dollars from the U.S. Department of Education through a $1.2 billion teacher incentive fund created to help local school districts bolster teacher pay.

These grants will help schools build a culture that celebrates excellence in the classroom and helps all teachers improve their practice," said U.S. Department of Education Secretary Arne Duncan.

The six Florida districts Duval, Hillsborough, Miami-Dade, Pinellas, Putnam and Orange -- received a total of more than $78 million to give bonuses to effective teachers and help staff high need areas. Twenty-seven states received money for the five-year program that is part of the Obama administration's efforts to push money for education reform to schools throughout the country.

In Miami-Dade schools, which will receive $10 million, the teachers' union and district officials have long been talking about how to establish a merit pay program. The money will be used to experiment with teacher pay programs in eight elementary schools, said United Teachers of Dade President Karen Aronowitz.

If teachers' test scores go up, they get money, Aronowitz said. If they don't, no harm, no foul.

The issue of teacher merit pay consumed much of the 2010 legislative session in Tallahassee. A measure, sponsored by Republican Party of Florida Chairman Sen. John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, and championed by former Gov. Jeb Bush, would have based teacher pay raises on performance appraisals determined by local school districts. Half of a teachers score would be based on student learning gains on standardized exams.

Teachers around the state expressed outrage at the plan, saying student accomplishment couldn't necessarily be reflected by standardized exams. A student's home life, as well as other outside factors, has a huge impact on student performance, they said. Many teachers also opposed the notion of state control instead of oversight by the local school board.

Gov. Charlie Crist ultimately vetoed the measure, SB 6, but discussions about merit pay have continued, particularly in light of the state's success in the federal Race to the Top competition. Through the Race to the Top grant money, many local school districts will begin negotiations about how to implement merit pay programs.

These six school districts could get there a little bit faster, and each will have plans dictated by discussions between local unions and school leadership.

For the most part, Aronowitz said she doesn't believe that bonuses make better teachers. A recent Vanderbilt University study of Nashville middle school students appears to back up that assertion. Over a three-year period, the study found students with teachers who were eligible for bonuses didn't generally out-perform students with teachers who were not eligible for the extra money.

It's not like people are sitting back saying we're not going to help students achieve because we're waiting for bonuses to come, she said.

In Duval County, a $9.5 million grant will be used for a compensation system as well as professional development plans. The Duval County school district already has a merit award program that will be furthered through this money, said Superintendent Ed Pratt-Dannals.

This grant will provide great opportunities for our schools to enhance the performance of principals, teachers and students in key areas of education, Pratt-Dannals said in a press release.

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