Florida’s State Board of Education has taken a bold stand opposing the state’s present Best and Brightest Teacher Scholarship Program, which distributes large bonuses (about $8,500 in the program’s first year) to teachers based on controversial criteria. The Board recommended that the funds from the program – $49 million this year – be redirected in the next fiscal year toward a new program that would attract more strong teachers to high-needs schools and recruit more highly qualified teachers in science, math and computing fields. The Board will soon devise a more detailed proposal that it will then share with the Florida Legislature, which authorized the present Best and Brightest program and which has the power to change it.
The present Best and Brightest program has two controversial requirements for eligibility. The first – and the one to which most public attention has been paid – is the requirement that the Best and Brightest bonuses be given to those teachers who earned high SAT or ACT scores themselves. In general, teachers took their SAT or ACT tests while they were in high school – in some cases decades ago. The research on whether the students of teachers with high SAT or ACT scores achieve more is inconclusive, at best.
However, the second requirement is no less arbitrary: A teacher must have earned an evaluation grade of “highly effective” – the best possible evaluation – to be eligible. On its face, this seems like a reasonable requirement. Don’t we want to focus rewards on teachers whose students achieve the greatest learning gains?
But there is no statewide definition of “highly effective”, and because of this the percentage of teachers earning the highly effective grade varies wildly from district to district. In Leon County, 89.5% of teachers were rated “highly effective” for the 2014-15 school year. In Alachua County it was even higher – 94.2%. But in Orange County, only 2.4% of teachers were rated “highly effective”.
As a result, whether a teacher earns a Best and Brightest bonus depends in large part on the school district in which the teacher practices.
So when the State Board of Education makes its proposal to the Florida Legislature about how to design a new teacher incentive program, it should address the chaotic mess that is the state’s teacher evaluation program. If the Board comes up with a wise proposal and coaxes the Legislature to go along, it will make a huge positive difference in the lives of millions of children.