I have been so worked up over this issue for so long, that I thought when I sat down to write this blog that it would practically write itself, and yet, I have been sitting here staring at an empty page and trying to decide what it is that I really want to say.
You see, when the idea of pay for performance first came out, I applauded it. I thought it was about time that teachers that work so hard and care so much, who put passion and commitment into their work, should be recognized. I was sick to death of seeing poor teachers continue in our profession. I thought it was about time that we got rid of those teachers who were just there to earn a paycheck and didn't really care about their ethical responsibility to the children in their care. It seemed like such a logical path and such an affirmative cause.
What I didn't fully realize is that the decision for how the system would work would be left up to politicians and people who have never walked in a teacher's shoes. We would not be like doctors who police their own profession or lawyers who regulate their own membership, but we would be the pawns in a wicked game of political power and circumstance.
I could give you all the little details of why this system hasn't worked, from personal experience, but it doesn't really matter. The bottom line is that the formula for being a "highly effective" teacher, which is the road to performance pay in Florida, combines a principal's evaluation with student growth scores. The problems with that formula are so enormous that it's hard to contain in a single blog. They have tried so hard to be fair, but a principal's evaluation, no matter how hard they try, is still subjective, and the growth scores are a crap shoot in any given year. Sure, there's a state test to determine growth scores for some teachers but is that even that fair? You can argue that the teachers have no way to control for what their students come to school with or you could argue that students who make a perfect score often count as "not making growth" when they make a perfect score the next year, so how can those growth scores be fair? I could spend this entire blog just talking about things that effect the scores that are out of a teacher's control!
And to complicate it even more, there is no state test for K-1 students (and for many resource and specialty teachers). I could tell you about the year that my growth score was dependent on a state test and that the communication was so poor at the state and county level that our school never got the word of how to open the portal to test high achieving children so... because our children made so high on the pretest and then just repeated their perfect scores on the post test, they were deemed not to make progress! Of course, that certainly is water under the bridge. However, I guess I still haven't gotten over it, because I'm bringing it up here! It's just hard to live with because it effected a large number of extraordinary teachers. That year most of those exemplary teachers were not highly effective, although they had very high Principal evaluations. It wasn't because they didn't teach their heart out or because their students didn't make exceptional progress. It was because of a glitch and a line of poor communication.
Or we could take this year's announcement of last year's scores. My kindergarten group showed amazing progress as a group and individually. I was so proud by the end of the year. I won't go into all the individual successes we had, but they were numerous. Our growth score for last year was determined by a county-written test designed for pre and post testing. The test had never been field tested. It was a new test, designed by "somebody" - hmmmmm... Anybody see a problem? This was also the year that we were told at the beginning of the year that kindergartners would be pre and post tested and monitored each nine weeks in Language Arts, Math and Science and pre and post tested in Art, Music P.E. - I don't even remember all the absurd testing that we were suppose to do. When I first heard it, I thought it was a joke, but no, "someone" had decided that this made sense for five year olds? About sixty days into the school year, the county finally "listened" to the outcry and came down to a more reasonable testing schedule but by then, much of the damage had been done. We had complied with the original requirement so we had essentially lost 60 days of initial instructional time. As the data began to arrive, it was full of mistakes. We had students with scores over 100%, missing data, and missing students, so the data was useless. We called... and called... and called... the Testing Office to have the obvious inaccuracies fixed. I'll bet they flipped a coin in the testing office and the loser had to take our calls! It would really have been comical, except it affected children and our reputations as teacher! The data was basically unreliable - and this was going to be our growth scores to determine if we were highly effective?
I shouldn't have been surprised that when the growth scores came in, that I was called into the Principal's Office. The Principal explained to me that I had a 1% growth score. 1%!!!!!!! That means that exactly 1% of my kinder students made progress last year! I had about a second of absolute panic when I thought - could I really suck that bad? But then reality began to set in. No... this was a class that had made incredible progress. I could go student by student and rattle off the amazing things that I had witnessed. We had worked so hard. I looped this class, so I still had most of these students as first graders. No way! No, this was not possible... As I began to put it together, I noticed my Principal sort of smile. "I know," she said, "there has to be something wrong with the data." OH MY GOSH! A 1% growth score put me in the "Needs Improvement" category! I am a National Board Certified Teacher with over 30 years experience. I am a former Florida Teacher of the Year. I have published 19 books for teachers and now, I was in the "Needs Improvement" category! Really?!! Thankfully, the Principal and Assistant Principal went right to work to begin notifying the Testing Office that there had to be something wrong with the data. It ended up that there was a large group of teachers at my school - and I later learned at other schools - that were effected.
That was October. We had to submit an appeal and were told "someone" would look into the matter, but for months, we were to hang out, having nothing to go on but a 1% growth score. How did we know that anybody was even looking into the problem? What would the parents in my class think, if that news got out? I looped this class so I still taught most of the same students. Would the parents trust the success they had witnessed in their students or would there be that little seed of doubt? Would they wonder? Would it get out that a former Florida Teacher of the Year had a 1% growth score and was an ineffective teacher? Would my name be published in the paper? I know all of that seems a little irrational, but I am sure that in some way, it went through the mind of every teacher involved. It's embarrassing. This is our life's work... Our county had allowed our reputations to be defined by a poorly written test with no history and a data system that was untested and obviously full of inadequacies and inaccuracies...
Just last week, the new scores FINALLY came back - We had waited four months - FOUR MONTHS! - and I am thrilled to say that my growth score was 95%, which does put me back in the "highly effective" category, but you know what? Who's to say that those scores are right either? I am suppose to learn something from this process that will make me a better teacher, but what I've learned is that this state is not ready for pay for performance. They don't have the structure in place to make decisions that effect a teacher's morale, pay, and reputation, because each of those things in its own way effects the children that we teach... and they deserve better.
Did the state or county learn anything from this debacle? It doesn't look like it... because this year K-1 teachers in our county have yet another new test. This time it's a computer-based test - for kindergartners... hmmmm... see any problems? To start with, our school simply doesn't have the technology to support a computer-based program of this magnitude, so the very foundation is full of holes. We have one tech lab that supports 1300 students and with the intermediate testing schedule, we might get into the lab a handful of times a year. I have three computers in my classroom (for 36 students!), just recently bumped up to six, but what instruction do I want my students to miss while they get on the computer? I already have students come in before and after school and give up my planning time to help accommodate, but it's still not enough. Of course, students can get on the programs at home, but that just widens the divide between the haves and the have nots! The students that need the most instruction are the very ones that don't have computers at home. But none of that really matters, I guess, because once again, my ability to teach will be judged on the scores from a computer-based program - that even the designers of the program say was never its purpose...
Pay for performance can still be a good idea , but it's an idea that we are obviously not ready for... It's time has NOT come...