I’m Being Punished for Teaching These Kids

By: David Ball

  It’s the start of the school day when fourth-grade teacher Ronnique Major-Hundley picks up the phone. She’s made this kind of call before when a student decides to skip school. Except this particular student has stellar attendance and wouldn’t normally miss what is probably the most important day of the year—when students take the […]


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It’s the start of the school day when fourth-grade teacher Ronnique Major-Hundley picks up the phone. She’s made this kind of call before when a student decides to skip school. Except this particular student has stellar attendance and wouldn’t normally miss what is probably the most important day of the year—when students take the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, or FCAT.

The student’s mother answers and bursts into tears. “The police are here,” she sobs. “My boyfriend tried to kill me last night, and my child saw it all.”

Major-Hundley can recount many other stories from her 12 years at Emma E. Booker Elementary, where the majority of students come from Sarasota’s poorest families in Newtown and surrounding neighborhoods. Children face evictions, foreclosures, domestic violence, hunger and crime, and those problems affect their school work and test scores, Major-Hundley says.

It’s a reality she faces every day, and one that inspires her to be the best teacher possible. But it’s a reality that some believe state legislators have ignored in a new law that is igniting controversy in Sarasota schools. Teachers say the law is simplistic and unfair, pointing to them as the sole reason why students succeed or fail. Administrators worry that the law will push good teachers out of schools or maybe out of teaching altogether.

For Major-Hundley, described by her principal as one of the best teachers at Booker, the new reality is that if her students don’t do well on the FCAT, she could be fired.

“I’m being punished for doing something that I love, for teaching these kids,” Major-Hundley says. “This is really scary, and other teachers are scared too.”

Florida Senate Bill 736, called the “Student Success Act” by its legislative sponsors, ties teacher employment and pay to students’ FCAT and other end-of-year test scores, a concept known as performance pay or merit pay. The bill effectively eliminates teacher tenure and longstanding job protections, most notably the “last in, first out” policy that requires new teachers to be laid off before tenured teachers during budget cuts.

The law is steeped in a deep philosophical debate over how students learn and how teachers should be held accountable. It follows a national reform movement led by celebrity figures like Michelle Rhee, the former Washington, D.C., schools chancellor and star of the education documentary Waiting for Superman, and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. They argue that any student, regardless of background, can excel if taught by a good teacher. They say teachers should be measured by something objective, like how their students perform on standardized tests. And they believe good teachers should be financially rewarded, while bad teachers should be fired—a process they say isn’t happening because of union contracts.

In Sarasota, schools officials say that while the law is well-intentioned, it is being implemented too quickly and ignores the realities teachers face in the classroom. Teachers say the law may even weaken education, coming at a time when they are seeing unprecedented budget cuts and being asked to drop more lesson plans in order to focus on preparing students for state-mandated tests. It’s also an unfunded mandate and could tack on untold expenses for the district to develop, administer and analyze new tests.

“I worry that it is not going to create better teaching,” says Sarasota School Superintendent Lori White, who is feverishly working with administrators and teachers’ union leaders to implement the new law this school year. “I try to be objective and fair with this. Where I get passionate is on some of the unintended consequences that I think can endanger the system.”

Teachers in the crosshairs

The traditional educational system, in Florida and across the country, is being targeted for major reforms from both sides of the aisle, and teachers are often in the crosshairs. There was, for example, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s bill earlier this year that stripped union bargaining rights for state workers—mostly teachers.

Right-wing pundits picked up the anti-union chant, describing a world of mediocre teachers leisurely going about their day and earning six-figure salaries working nine months a year.

“Teachers hear this stuff, and it affects them,” says Pat Gardner, president of the Sarasota County teachers union, Sarasota Classified/Teachers Association. “Teachers used to encourage students and their own kids to become teachers. Now, they tell them you can do anything you want, but don’t become a teacher.”

Robin Ringo, a ninth-grade English teacher at Pine View School in Osprey, agrees. “I don’t know in this political climate if I’m going to last,” Ringo says. “My students adore me and I do a good job for them. But who would want to be a teacher right now?”

Teacher accountability is not just the cry of extremists these days. There is a growing belief all across the political spectrum that the job security that has been a hallmark of the profession has allowed mediocre and incompetent teachers to hide within the system, earning the same salaries and benefits as the best. Even President Obama in this year’s State of the Union address said, “We want to reward good teachers and stop making excuses for bad ones.”

Former D. C. chancellor Rhee, who has been an informal advisor for Florida Gov. Rick Scott since his inauguration, applauds Senate Bill 736. On her website, Rhee calls the Florida bill “the strongest language in the country” on tenure policy.

Few teacher firings in Sarasota

In Sarasota, the numbers do seem to bear out that hardly any teachers earn poor performance reviews and even fewer are actually fired.

Sarasota district records show that from 2008-2010, only 21 teachers earned “unsatisfactory” teacher ratings out of a total of 7,580, or less than 0.3 percent. About 1.2 percent of teachers received middle ratings of “developing” or “needs improvement,” and about 98 percent earned the ratings of “competent,” “proficient” or “accomplished.”

But Sarasota principals say those numbers don’t tell the entire story, since many poorly performing teachers are identified early in the year and are coached under the district’s Performance Improvement Plan.

“Nine times out of 10 we see tremendous growth and improvement from our teachers,” says Nancy Dubin, a 21-year principal who presides over the K-8 Laurel Nokomis School. “Every few years or so I have to not renew a teacher’s contract when they don’t improve. It does happen. But they are almost always motivated to learn, and when given that opportunity they do that.”

Only 14 Sarasota teachers were fired from 2008 to 2010. District officials say that figure is artificially low because some teachers, after receiving multiple poor evaluations, chose to resign or retire rather than be fired. In 2010-11, for instance, 44 teachers went through the Performance Improvement Plan. Eleven have yet to complete the process, but of the 33 who did, 15 returned as satisfactory teachers, 13 chose to resign or retire or change to a teacher’s aide or other paraprofessional, and five were fired, according to district records.

Rachel Shelley, principal at Phoenix Academy, a school for struggling students, says she personally hired two teachers only to find that they were not suited for the particular challenges of her school.

“I was able to counsel them toward resignation rather than termination,” says Shelley, who this year will take over as principal at Booker High School. “I support Sarasota’s system. It should really be about how to empower teachers to look at areas where they need to improve.”

A rating for every teacher

Florida school districts knew a bill like this was coming, as nearly all of them signed off on a commitment to the national Race to the Top program. Florida is competing with other states for $4.35 billion in grant money by instituting education reform measures, including performance pay. Florida has so far received $700 million, of which the Sarasota County School District is poised to get $3.5 million.

“Race to the Top was a way for us to have some funds to begin the expensive process of developing tests and data infrastructure,” White says. “Then we have Senate Bill 736, which certainly includes all the aspects of Race to the Top but has some significant additions that frankly have made it more challenging and difficult to swallow.”

The bill is a close relative to last year’s Senate Bill 6, which was supported by state Republicans but was vetoed by then-Gov. Charlie Crist in the wake of widespread teacher opposition. This year, an even more conservative legislature and new Gov. Scott pushed through Senate Bill 736 and other Bush-era education reforms that ease class size restrictions, increase funding for charter schools, add vouchers for students who wish to attend private schools, and expand and require some online courses.

Senate Bill 736 states that starting in the 2011-12 school year, every teacher will receive ratings of “highly effective,” “effective,” “needs improvement,” and “unsatisfactory.” Half of that rating will be based on how their students performed on the FCAT as compared to the previous two years (referred to as “learning growth”). The other half of a teacher’s rating will be from typical employee evaluations, such as classroom observations. Teachers will be fired if they receive two consecutive “unsatisfactory” ratings or three years of “unsatisfactory” and “needs improvement.” Beginning in 2014, only teachers with “effective” and “highly effective” ratings will get pay raises (that only applies to new teachers; existing teachers can choose to remain on the current salary schedule that gives raises based on years of service). Principals and assistant principals will also be rated and given raises based on hiring and retaining highly rated teachers.

Since FCAT only tests reading, writing, math and science for grades three to 11, new state- or district-created tests will be added until all courses have a standardized end-of-year test by 2014. The bill also requires teachers of art, physical education, music and other non-core studies to be rated using some form of yet-to-be-determined test. The state still must decide exactly how it will measure student learning growth once they get the test scores, but the bill mandates the state must consider a student’s attendance record, disabilities and English proficiency. However, the bill forbids considering a student’s gender, race or socioeconomic status.

Senate Bill 736’s sponsor, Sen. Stephen Wise, R-Jacksonville, says this year’s law succeeded, in large part, because of months of talks with state education leaders to make it less “draconian” than last year’s Senate Bill 6. He says his bill moves toward treating education like a business, where progress is measures and employee performance is rewarded. Or he likens it to a baseball team.

“Baseball players are paid on performance,” Wise says. “The idea is ‘how do I get that pitcher to pitch better?’ We’re going to pay on performance. If you’re hitting the ball and doing what you need to do and the kids are performing, then you’re going to get rewarded.”

Does money motivate?

Daniel Pink, the national best-selling author of Drive: The Surprising Truth about What Motivates Us, argues against teacher merit-pay systems based on 50 years of human motivational research.

“I can’t see a way to construct a merit pay scheme that is both simple and fair,” Pink writes in a recent newsletter. “What’s more, it strikes me as slightly delusional to think that people who’ve intentionally chosen to pursue a career for public-spirited, rather than economic, reasons will suddenly work harder because they’re offered a few hundred extra dollars. Truth be told, most teachers work pretty damn hard already.”

New York Times

“When we don’t get the results we want in our military endeavors, we don’t say, ‘It’s these lazy soldiers and their bloated benefits plans! That’s why we haven’t done better in Afghanistan,’” the pair wrote in their April 30 piece. “No, if the results aren’t there, we blame the generals, the Secretary of Defense, the Joint Chiefs of Staff. No one contemplates blaming the men and women fighting every day in the trenches for little pay and scant recognition. And yet in education we do just that. When we don’t like the way our students score on international standardized tests, we blame the teachers. When we don’t like the way particular schools perform, we blame the teachers and restrict their resources.”

Pink and others point to recent studies that show performance pay systems don’t improve student performance. The first study was in 2010 and looked at Tennessee’s experiment of providing random monetary incentives to nearly 300 middle school math teachers. Those teachers’ students showed little to no testing gains. The most recent study by Harvard University of New York’s three-year-old performance pay system showed no increase in student test scores in that time.

“I find no evidence that teacher incentives increase student performance, attendance, or graduation, nor do I find any evidence that the incentives change student or teacher behavior,” Harvard economist Roland Fryer writes in his summary of the study. “If anything, teacher incentives may decrease student achievement, especially in larger schools.”

Still, the Florida Bill passed quickly and along party lines: 80-39 in the House and 26-12 in the Senate. All of Sarasota’s legislators—Reps. Ray Pilon, Doug Holder and Ken Roberson and Sens. Mike Bennett and Nancy Detert, all Republicans—voted in favor of the bill.

Detert, a former Sarasota County School Board member, chaired the Senate’s K-12 Education Committee last year when Senate Bill 6 surfaced. She says Senate Bill 736 isn’t perfect, but it is a good foundation for reform. She discounts the studies done of the performance pay reforms in other states and seems confident the bill will result in student achievement. Like Wise, Detert uses a business analogy.

“You need a new business model, because the old one is not working and is not financially stable,” Detert says. “We’re not looking to punish anybody or to make it a political thing or any of that paranoia. This thing will evolve to fit what the teachers need.”

What teachers need

Many teachers say what they need is less emphasis on FCAT and other testing, which has grown in importance in Florida in determining student progress, school grades and, most importantly, district funding.

Sarasota’s Deb Bryan, who teaches English at Riverview High School, says preparing for the FCAT takes so much time that she now can rarely offer her students the kind of engaging lessons—like acting out a scene from Shakespeare—that helped win her the title of Sarasota’s Teacher of the Year in 2000. She and other Sarasota teachers say their most creative—and most effective—lessons might further erode under pressures to prepare students for new tests that will be required under Senate Bill 736.

Diane Ravitch, author of The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice are Undermining Education, agrees. Ravitch recently appeared on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart to attack the dogmatic insistence on testing in public schools.

“Schools have been turned into testing factories. We have schools cutting the arts completely, less time for science, less time for history, for physical education, for civics—all the things that make school interesting,” Ravitch told Stewart. “Kids have to have a reason to want to come to school, and I’ve never met any child who said, ‘I can’t wait to get to school for test prep.’”

That’s echoed by the students in Bryan’s ninth-grade English class. In a class discussion this May, almost all said they are tired of being taught to the test, and so is their Teacher of the Year.

“I look back at the good old days, when teaching was fun,” Bryan says. “I loved what I did, and I’m not sure I love it like I used to. That’s depressing, because I love these kids and I want to enlighten them and help them be better citizens and be more aware of the world around them. But there’s no time for that now. Now, it’s all about that 140-minute test.”

The poverty divide

The most controversial aspect of the new law may be that it rules out considering a student’s socioeconomic status in his or her testing growth from year to year. As a result, teachers at schools with large populations of low-income students could be more at risk of losing pay or their jobs than teachers at schools with higher-income students.The Sarasota County School District, in cooperation with the union, examined two earlier performance-pay models promoted by the state in 2006 and 2007. The groups found that teachers at schools with lower-income students—and historically lower FCAT scores—would not be evaluated fairly. Teachers overwhelmingly voted down the program.

“It did not seem to level the playing field for schools that had a large proportion of students living in poverty. It was really damaging,” White says. “We found we would have more effective teachers at [honors school] Pine View than we would at Emma E. Booker Elementary, and we weren’t sure that was an accurate portrayal.”

The issue of socioeconomic status is an ideological one for proponents of the bill, who argue that any child, regardless of where he comes from, can learn as long as he has an effective teacher. That is the position of the Foundation for Florida’s Future and the Foundation for Excellence in Education, the two Jeb Bush-founded groups that essentially wrote Senate Bills 6 and 736.

“What we don’t want is to create lower standards and lower expectations,” says Jaryn Emhof, communications director for both foundations. Emhof adds that the bill allows for measuring students’ growth from one year to the next, and doesn’t just base a teacher’s rating on if a student scores high or low.

Joe Williams, executive director for Democrats for Education Reform, applauds the Florida bill and says, “Part of what motivates people associated with our group is the belief that for a long time the bar was set much lower for low-income students.”

Sen. Wise says legislators debated the issue of including socioeconomic status in how the state determines student testing growth, but many felt it was racist to hold poorer—usually black—students to lower standards.

“One of the African-American senators said, ‘I came from the ghetto and I’m a lawyer. Does that mean I couldn’t learn because I had a single mom and I was from the projects?’” Wise says. “A good teacher can turn on a kid to things that can make them excited to learn.”

In Sarasota, there appears to be a strong correlation between poverty level of students and FCAT scores. Booker Elementary has the highest percentage of low-income students of any school in Sarasota County, based on the amount of free and reduced-price lunches offered—the only way the district can track income demographics. Nearly 93 percent, or about 490 students, received free or reduced-price lunches as a result of their household income. More than 83 percent of students at Booker Elementary are black or Hispanic, far more than any other Sarasota school.

Booker Elementary also has some of the lowest scores on the FCAT. Last year, 59 percent of students performed at grade level or better on the reading test. The figures were 51 percent for math, 61 percent for writing and 26 percent for science. District averages were all higher at 80, 79, 73 and 62 percent.

That goes along with various studies showing strong correlation between household income and test scores. For instance, a 2009 New York Times study showed that American high school students scored about 12 points higher on the math SAT for every $20,000 extra their family earned.

But Emma Booker principal Dawn Clayton says her school’s lower FCAT scores aren’t due to lower student expectations or because she has inferior teachers. It has to do with powerful forces outside a teacher’s control.

“These students are coming to us from families in crisis. They could be hungry, living alone while a single parent works or are being foreclosed on, and they internalize this,” Clayton says. “There are students like this in every school, but it is more concentrated at my school. [Because of the new bill] there will undoubtedly be a reluctance for the most qualified and most talented staff to come and work at a school like ours.”

Legislators, educators and the public all have the same goal: better schools and better-educated students. But Florida’s new law illustrates the challenge facing reformers. Every new idea brings with it unintended consequences, and tempting as it is to search for one simple, logical solution, so far, no magic bullet has emerged. Some experts point to countries like Finland, Singapore and South Korea, which perform the best on standardized tests. These countries have strong unions, generally pay for teacher training and pay their teachers higher salaries. In South Korea, for example, pay is about 250 percent more than teachers are paid in America. (Motivational expert Pink also suggests raising teacher pay—along with weeding out poor teachers—as the way to attract and retain good teachers.)

Katie Lawrenz, a young, energetic Sarasota native, graduates from University of South Florida this summer and has her eye on a teaching job in her home town. But as the future of Sarasota’s teaching profession, Lawrenz, now an intern at Booker Elementary, may be a sobering indicator of what’s to come.

“I’d like to teach at Booker, but I’m not sure now. I’m worried about the new law,” she says. “I’ve taught at other schools, and this is more of a challenge. The teachers here are great, and they might be even better than your average teacher. I don’t know why the state would want to hinder us like this.”

Sarasota freelance photographer and journalist David Ball contributes to a number of Florida publications. In 2010, he was recognized by the Florida Press Association for his investigative series for the Miami Herald’s The Reporter about a financial scandal that embroiled the Monroe County School District. He is currently working on a book about the scandal.