A letter to Amanda Ripley, who was the inspiration for the Florida Best and Brightest Teacher Scholarship Program

The news about Florida’s Best and Brightest Teacher Scholarship Program has finally circulated around the state and nation.  After Jeff Solochek’s original article at the Tampa Bay Times appeared, newspapers around Florida published articles on the program, and articles also appeared on the education blogs at the Washington Post and Atlanta Journal Constitution, as well as in the Houston Chronicle.  In 2015-16, the program will pay new K-12 teachers $10,000 bonuses if they earned a high score on either the ACT or SAT while they were in high school, and pay the same bonuses to teachers already in the system if they have the required ACT/SAT score from high school and also earned a “highly effective” rating for the 2014-15 school year.

Jeff Solochek reported that in coming up with the idea for the program, State Representative Erik Fresen was inspired by Amanda Ripley’s book, The Smartest Kids in the World, which describes education systems in other nations.  I asked in a tweet what Amanda Ripley would think of Fresen’s Best and Brightest Program, and her tweeted response was “Thx for asking. I like seeing teachers get paid more $. Is it perfect? No. Neither am I. But what do you think?”  I responded, but didn’t get anything more.  So I wrote her a real e-mail on Monday, and haven’t received a response to that, either.  For the record, here is the e-mail I sent her Monday.  It lays out some of my concerns about the program.

Dear Ms. Ripley:

I’m writing about your tweet regarding the Florida Best and Brightest Teacher Scholarship Program. I responded (twice, actually), but this subject deserves more than 280 characters.

During the last few decades, Florida’s public schools have done a remarkable job improving the reading achievement of its students despite these students’ socioeconomic challenges (the state’s free and reduced lunch rate is significantly above the national rate). However, teacher turnover at high-poverty schools still tends to be higher than at schools with more affluent students, and low income students still tend to do more poorly in reading achievement than higher income students.

Furthermore, the achievement rates of Florida’s students in math and science are either at the national average or below on NAEP. The lack of focus on math and science also shows up clearly in Advanced Placement results. Florida is among the nation’s leaders in AP exams on social science, world languages and English. In math and science, the state is only average despite the significant fiscal incentives for AP success built into the state’s education budget.

So here are two problems that I claim can be addressed by constructive policies on differential pay for teachers. First, we need strong, experienced teachers to persist at high poverty schools. Second, we need to attract more strong math and science students into teaching.

The SAT-based Florida Best and Brightest Teacher Scholarship program that was recently enacted will not directly address either.

It would make much more sense to pay teachers $10,000 annual salary supplements to teach at schools where the free and reduced lunch rate is 70% or above (the state’s rate is 58%). It would also make more sense to pay $10,000 annual salary supplements to teachers who hold bachelors’ degrees in math or the physical sciences where average starting salaries for new bachelors’ degree grads are $50,000 per year or above. (For comparison, starting teacher salaries in Florida run between $35,000 and $40,000)

The $44 million that we will spend on the SAT-driven Florida Best and Brightest Teacher Scholarship Program in 2015-2016 could have done a great deal to address these two issues. It’s a shame that this money is being misspent instead.

Paul Cottle

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