Last week, the Florida state legislature passed sweeping changes to the state’s law for employing public school teachers. The new regime effectively eliminates tenure for newly hired employees; requires districts to evaluate teachers based in part on student performance on standardized tests; abolishes the rule that seniority determines teacher layoffs; and lets districts establish performance-based salary schedules. Former governor Charlie Christ vetoed a similar bill last year, which is one reason that he’s not a public official today (he lost in a bid for the Senate last year). Newly elected governor Rick Scott is expected to sign the bill into law soon.
Not surprisingly, public school teachers in Florida have vigorously opposed the changes, as have teachers’ unions in other states considering similar, if less comprehensive, reforms. The Florida Education Association, the state’s teachers’ union, has already threatened to file a lawsuit to block or overturn the law. The unions’ most frequent objection is that the state’s unilateral imposition of new work rules is disrespectful to teachers.
Yet it’s the current system that treats teachers as interchangeable widgets. Under Florida’s current rules, the process for evaluating teachers is essentially a rubber stamp—it is common for 99 percent or more teachers to earn “Satisfactory” or higher ratings. The state’s teachers earn uniform pay based exclusively on two attributes: years of experience and possession of advanced degrees, criteria mostly unrelated to the quality of their teaching, research shows. One study conducted by Dan Goldhaber found that only “about 3 percent of the contribution teachers made to student learning was associated with teacher experience, degree attained, and other readily observable characteristics.” Moreover, once teachers enter the classroom, they receive little meaningful feedback about their performance. Nearly all teachers who choose to remain in the classroom longer than three years win job protections that make it so hard to fire them that few schools even try. In short: the current system makes no meaningful attempt to distinguish between great and not-so-great teachers. Its underlying premise is that anyone who becomes a teacher is doing just fine.
But everyone knows that not all public school teachers are good at what they do. Empirical research finds wide variation in teacher quality, and further, that the difference between being assigned to a high-quality or to a subpar teacher means as much as a grade level’s worth of achievement for a student over the course of a school year. Any education system that ignores the obvious variation in teacher quality devalues teaching. Treating teachers as if they’re all identical, as the union prefers, is ultimately no different from treating them as if they don’t matter.
By contrast, the premise underlying reforms like those pursued in Florida is that teachers are the most important resource in public schools and thus worthy of careful consideration. Unlike today’s rubber-stamp approach, for example, an evaluation system based partly on student performance provides teachers with a substantive measure of how well, or poorly, they’re doing their jobs. Committed educators can then use this feedback to improve their classroom effectiveness. Moreover, removing ineffective teachers, regardless of how many years they’ve worked—which the new law will enable schools to do—opens the door to new, potentially excellent teachers. Rewarding the best teachers with higher pay is not only just; it will also help schools retain the educators they can least afford to lose. The Florida reforms are an encouraging sign that some states are finally getting it: our public schools need outstanding teachers, not tenured bureaucrats.