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Merit bonuses elude top teachers
By RACHEL SIMMONSEN
Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 02, 2007
Of about 400 Martin County teachers and administrators awarded bonuses recently, one name was conspicuously absent: Carol Matthews O'Connor, the district's teacher of the year.
Fewer than half of the teachers of the year at the district's 22 schools earned a bonus under STAR (Special Teachers Are Rewarded), a controversial merit pay plan that was approved reluctantly last school year by the school board and teachers union.
"I'm just as disappointed as those who didn't get the money," school board member David Anderson said.
"I don't even know where to begin," teachers union chief Jeanette Phillips said of the program's faults.
School board members have said they had little choice but to adopt the plan: Florida school districts were required to come up with their own versions of STAR or lose their share of the $147.5 million allotted to the program. If Martin had opted out, it still would have had to come up with a performance-pay plan - and $1 million to pay for it.
Gov. Charlie Crist later repealed the STAR plan, which was adopted under his predecessor, Jeb Bush, but districts had the option of keeping the bonus programs they had approved already.
In August, the Martin school district handed out about $1 million in bonus money to 408 teachers and administrators, or about 28.4 percent of the instructional staff. The bonuses, equal to about 5 percent of an employee's salary, ranged from about $990 to about $3,580.
Many teachers complained that the criteria to qualify were unfair. They were evaluated largely on students' performance on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test and personnel evaluations.
Teachers of subjects not covered by the FCAT were evaluated by their students' performance on other exams, including those created by the district.
To come up with the districtwide tests, teachers were asked to submit 25 questions they thought would be appropriate for an end-of-year exam. District administrators decided which questions would be used for the test, and that choice might have benefited the students at one school more than another, said Phillips, the teachers union chief.
Another problem was that students weren't graded for those district-designed tests, and they knew it. Many didn't take them seriously and performed poorly as a result, Phillips said. Their teachers' chances at bonus money disappeared.
Debra Alessandra, teacher of the year at Spectrum Junior/Senior High School, said there simply wasn't enough time to create good districtwide tests. The exams that were created "may not have accurately measured student growth."
Alessandra didn't receive a bonus. She said she wasn't sure why she fell short, but she doesn't like the idea of teacher bonuses anyway.
"Personally, I just feel like, for students to succeed, teachers need to work together, not feel like they're in competition," she said.
At a recent Warfield Elementary school advisory council meeting, O'Connor, the district's teacher of the year, talked about her own dismay at failing to qualify for a STAR bonus, even when "my evaluation was about as perfect as you can get."
Some teachers might have had the opposite problem, Phillips said. Even if a teacher had the district's highest student scores on standardized tests, he could miss out on a bonus if the evaluation was just satisfactory, not outstanding. The way the STAR grading system was designed, teachers had to meet a minimum standard on their evaluation; if they failed that, it didn't matter how wonderful their student scores were, Phillips said.
She doesn't feel much better about the district's latest bonus plan, the Merit Award Program, which still must be ratified by the teachers union. The school board approved the plan in September.
Under the proposal, each employee would be given an "effectiveness score," 21 percent of which would come from personnel evaluations. The remaining 79 percent of would be determined by student learning gains or proficiency on standardized tests such as the FCAT and district-designed exams, which now will count toward student grades.
Still, Phillips doesn't like the idea of teachers being judged on students' test performance, which falls largely outside teachers' control. She said she has heard too many stories of students performing poorly on tests because they learned the day before that their parents were divorcing or that a grandparent was hospitalized.
Besides, Phillips said, "All of our schools are A schools, so that tells you all of our teachers are working hard."
Many teachers who earned the STAR bonuses have said they don't want to discuss it or share the news with colleagues.
"It created a lot of animosity," said Maureen Basilico, teacher of the year at Challenger School, who earned a bonus. "I felt really bad for those who didn't."
Even so, Basilico said it's not necessarily a bad thing to give teachers an "extra incentive" to work hard. "I don't personally have a problem with that."