Florida is facing at least two teaching crises in its K-12 schools.
The one that is currently in the headlines is the shortage of strong teachers who are willing to teach in the state’s most socioeconomically challenged schools. Pinellas County is considering a proposal to increase teaching salaries by up to $25,000 at the five south county elementary schools labeled as “failure factories” in a Tampa Bay Times investigative series. The idea is to attract the strongest teachers to these schools. It is a strategy that should be implemented at high-needs schools throughout the state.
A second teaching crisis in Florida is the shortage of strong math and science teachers. The most striking symptom of this crisis is the steep decline in the NAEP 8th grade math results during the last several years. However, it would be easy to identify other symptoms of the math and science shortage.
The State of Florida has one significant program in place to attract new teachers to the profession – the Best and Brightest Teacher Scholarship Program, which offers new teachers with SAT or ACT scores at the 80th percentile or above signing bonuses of up to $10,000 and allows teachers with the same high SAT or ACT scores who are already in the workforce to earn these bonuses if they earn a grade of “highly effective” in the state-mandated teacher evaluation program, the results of which vary strongly from district to district. The percentages of teachers earning the “highly effective” grade vary from about 2% in Orange County to 90% or above in several school districts.
Best and Brightest does not directly address either the critical shortage of strong teachers in high-needs schools, nor the shortage of strong math and science teachers.
And now, thanks to a report in the Orlando Sentinel, we know that the teachers who are receiving Best and Brightest bonuses are more than twice as likely to be teaching affluent kids as poor kids – the kids who need strong teachers the most. This imbalance was also reported in an earlier Tampa Bay Times article. That is, not only is Best and Brightest not helping to address the need for more strong teachers in high-needs schools, it may actually be making things worse.
While this year’s Legislature funded the Best and Brightest program again, we can at least be grateful that the effort by House leaders to enshrine Best and Brightest in statute failed, thanks to resistance from Senators – including several leading Republicans. Because the program is not in statute, it is possible that the 2017 Legislature can change the rules of Best and Brightest so that it can be targeted to directly address the state’s most urgent educational crises – the need for strong teachers in high-needs schools and in the subjects of math and science.