Florida

Putting Education Reform To The Test

Veteran Florida Teachers Wonder If New Bonuses Are Meant For Them

Teacher think lawmakers might have ulterior motives when they created a $44 million bonus program.

401(k) 2012 / Flickr

Teacher think lawmakers might have ulterior motives when they created a $44 million bonus program.

“Who are these bonuses for?”

It’s a question we heard from teachers over and over again while reporting on the new Best and Brightest Scholarships. They’re not actually scholarships — they’re bonuses worth up to $10,000 for teachers who scored in the top 20 percent of students when they took the SAT or ACT and earned the state’s top rating, “highly effective.”

Miami Republican Rep. Erik Fresen proposed the $44 million program during the legislative session. He’s said he was inspired by Amanda Ripley’s book “The Smartest Kids In the World.” In the book, Ripley found top students wanted to become teachers in Finland, South Korea and other top-performing nations. That isn’t always the case in the U.S.

Fresen’s bill went nowhere, but he managed to get the money added to the state budget despite objections from the Senate.

For many teachers, qualifying for the bonus meant tracking down decades-old test scores from the two testing companies or from the college they attended. Many teachers said they couldn’t get the records before the October 1st deadline.

It’s why many veteran teachers don’t think they bonuses were meant for them. They think they were intended for young teachers. More recent graduates can get their test scores online and first-year teachers are exempt from the “highly effective” requirement.

Retaining young teachers is an important issue. Federal data show about one in six teachers have quit the profession after five years. Replacing and retraining teachers can be expensive –  an estimated range of $61.4 million to $133.6 million between 2008 and 2009.

But if the bonuses were intended to retain young teachers, why couldn’t lawmakers just say that?

Many teachers and activists believe it’s because the bonuses were earmarked for Teach for America participants.

That program recruits top students at competitive colleges, puts them through a summer boot camp and then places them in schools in low-income neighborhoods. Teach for America supplies teachers to schools in Jacksonville, Miami and Orlando.

Teach for American participants are very likely to have earned high SAT and ACT scores. And fresh out of college, they wouldn’t need to earn the “highly effective” rating.

But turnover among Teach for America members can be high. A recent survey found 87 percent said they planned to leave teaching, compared to 26.3 percent of non-TFA teachers working in the same grades, same subjects and same schools.

Teach for America said they had nothing to do with Best and Brightest.

“We were not involved in any way with this scholarship proposal—no lawmaker solicited input from us, nor did we provide any input independently,” the organization wrote on its website.

“We’re proud of the many ways our teachers demonstrate leadership and achievement, but ACT and SAT scores are not among our selection criteria.”

In Miami, research has found TFA members boosted student math gains. Principals praise the energy and enthusiasm TFA members bring to the classroom. But, they concede they expect to replace TFA members every few years.

Many traditionally-trained teachers dismiss the program as “Teach for Awhile.” The program has been highly-criticized by some education researchers and teachers unions. Any affiliation between TFA and the bonuses would likely become politically toxic fast.

So were the bonuses a backdoor way to boost TFA member pay? We would have asked Rep. Fresen the question, but he canceled three scheduled interviews for this story.

Districts have until December 1st to submit eligible teachers to the Florida Department of Education. Maybe then we’ll have a better idea who is actually receiving the scholarships.

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