Putting Education Reform To The Test

Why Poverty Is Not Included in the Mathematical Equation for Teacher Merit Pay

Charles Trainor Jr. / Miami Herald

Advanced calculus teacher, Orlando Sarduy writes out the mathematical equation that will help grade teachers and determine how much they get paid. The formula considers 10 factors that influence how well a student does in school, but student poverty is not one of those factors.

Florida teachers will soon be judged on how much they improve student scores on a standardized test. Part of their pay is going to be based on a new formula created by the state.

But the formula doesn’t take into account what researchers say is one of the strongest indicators of student success: poverty.

The equation predicts what students should score on the state’s standardized exam, the FCAT, and then grades teachers if their students score above or below that predicted test score.

By 2014, all Florida schools will have to use the formula to evaluate teacher performance.

Miami-Dade County Superintendent Alberto Carvalho says leaving out poverty is a problem. He says poverty isn’t an excuse for low student performance, but it also can’t be ignored.

“To completely eliminate it off the table of discussion I think is quite frankly, reckless, disingenuous and insulting to poor people,” Carvalho said.

The formula takes into account 10 factors Florida officials say impact how well a student does in school, like class size, attendance, and the previous scores students get on the FCAT.

But nothing related to poverty is in the equation. Not whether a student has food to eat, or a place to sleep at night.

“The theory is that whether you come from a very poor and low socioeconomic background or a very high socioeconomic background, the abilities to learn and have student achievement are the same.”

- Lisa Maxwell, executive director of the Broward Principals and Assistant Principals Association.

And those circumstances do affect how well a student does in school, according to Lisa Maxwell, executive director of the Broward Principals and Assistant Principals Association.

“It’s hard for a student to do well on a test when they haven’t had breakfast, lunch or dinner for a day or so because their levels of concentration are different.”

Maxwell was part of the team that created the teacher pay formula.

The team was well aware that many studies link poverty to student success. But their hands were tied.

Florida lawmakers made it illegal to include poverty in the equation.

“The theory is that whether you come from a very poor and low socioeconomic background or a very high socioeconomic background, the abilities to learn and have student achievement are the same,” Maxwell said.

Federal Law Works Differently

The federal No Child Left Behind law considers poverty when it grades schools.

And policymakers in Tallahassee say that poverty is included in the new grading formula, just in a round-about way.

Kathy Hebda, deputy chancellor of the Florida Department of Education, says a students’ previous score on the state’s standardized exam is the most powerful factor in the teachers’ pay formula.

If a student is poor— and being poor affects their performance—then their previous test scores will reflect that, says Hebda. And teachers will only be graded based on how well they help the test scores of poor students improve from the year before.

“Our model includes two prior years test scores, for all students when they’re available,” said Hebda. “You really are getting a good picture of how that student will do.”

Critics say that logic assumes rich and poor students improve at the same rate. But research suggests that may not always be the case.

Orlando Sarduy, an advanced calculus teacher at Coral Reef High in Miami-Dade, says predicting student scores isn’t an equation. It’s an experiment.

“It’s like measuring the stock market. Past performance is not an indicator of future earnings. How it runs in reality is a different story,” Sarduy said.

It’s an experiment with high stakes.

The new formula determines what teachers like Sarduy get paid and whether they keep their jobs.

You can read the Miami Herald’s story on the formula here.


  • Jlbrochey

    In the sate of Florida, this is how it works:
    Teachers get 2 evaluations:

    First Evaluation is from the 8 steps of IPEGS. Each step is rewarded a point value which becomes the teachers “Grade” for teaching. These scores are almost 100% administrator opinion based decisions which is generated from a SINGLE observation of your class room (2 if you’re a new teacher) To often in the last 4-5 years that IPEGS has been the standard ( or during it’s pilot phase) have I witnessed Administrators wield IPEGS as a tool of personal bias.

    Second Evaluation is 50% of your entire evaluation which is based off of the FCAT scores of the students a teacher has serviced in a single year. This score is added to your IPEGS evaluation score and becomes your total grade. I.E.: if a an elementary 4th grade reading teacher services 2 classes at the appropriate size, 36 students, (18 per class) , that teacher’s score for the ENTIRE YEAR will be reflective of the reading scores on the once a year FCAT reading test of the 4th graders he/she serviced regardless of student demographic, race, poverty level, or classification (IEP, ELL, ESE, SPED etc.) and regardless of that student’s level of participation during the test, I.E. is the student having a bad day, is the student tired, get enough sleep, did the student eat, was the student abused prior to school or the night before, did the student take their medication, or even is the student just non willing to comply and sit for 2 hours at a time to take a test.

    The FUZZY part: Special area and all other non-core related teachers (Math, Science, Reading, Writing) will have their evaluation based on the FCAT reading scores of every student they serviced who is eligible for the FCAT. That means an Art Teacher in elementary school is being held responsible for the READING FCAT score of the entire 3rd 4th and 5th grade bodies even though that teacher does not teach that subject.

    The FUZZY part: No salary notes, amounts, or dividends based on FCAT scores and merit pay have been recorded. This law was passed with no pay scale attached to it. The state can literally turn around next year and tell every teacher they will be working for minimum wage next year.

    • Julia Yapell

      Jlbrochey – thank you for your explicit yet understandable explanation. We educators do recognize that the IPEGS is an extremely subjective review with the final word based upon the principal’s opinion. In the past I have filed objections to certain factors such as, communication. My APs agreed with me yet my principal failed to recognize my data and stoodfast. Furthermore, this past summer, I analyzed my students gains, one by one, utilizing the state formula for FCAT and my results were significantly varied to those of my evaluation I received this year although I was not provided with any data to substantiate. The entire methodology is baseless. I received a $1000 for being effective. Had I been found to be highly effective…I would have received a $1040 bonus….even more ridiculous.

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