From the Palm Beach Post
by Kevin D. Thompson
For the past 29 years, Sophia Youngberg has enjoyed her time as a teacher and couldn’t see herself doing anything else.
But that’s changed.
Youngberg, who turns 60 on Thursday, is seriously considering retirement after the Florida Senate last week passed an unpopular merit pay bill that will tie 50 percent of teacher salaries to the performance of their students on FCAT and other standardized tests over a three-year period. The bill, which passed by a 26-12 largely party-line vote, would also end the practice of basing layoffs on seniority, require school districts to develop assessments for grades and subjects not tested by FCAT and deny tenure to teachers hired after July 1.
The House is slated to begin debate today on the Senate bill. Democrats are expected to argue against the bill, but they are outnumbered 2-1 there as they were in the Senate. The bill is poised for a final vote Wednesday and, if passed as expected, would go to Republican Gov. Rick Scott, who campaigned in favor of the merit pay plan last fall and has said he would quickly sign it into law.
“There’s a lot of veteran teachers out there and this bill is scaring a lot of them into retiring early,” said Youngberg, a 21-year veteran at Citrus Cove Elementary in Boynton Beach. “I could do another five years, but honestly, now I’m not sure I want to.”
It’s not just veteran teachers who are thinking about retiring or leaving the state.
Jen Brown, an English teacher at Palm Beach Central High in Wellington, has been teaching for more than five years. While Brown, 27, said she loves her school and principal, she has been looking into the possibility of teaching in Canada.
“I love Palm Beach Central and I’m very happy there, but I can’t risk my livelihood over factors I have no control over,” Brown said.
Robert Dow, president of the Palm Beach County teachers union, said the state is changing the entire structure of how teachers are evaluated, paid, hired or fired without testing or piloting a program first.
“This is a grand experiment,” Dow said.
Teachers have been railing against Senate Bill 736 for months, saying it would penalize teachers who teach students who have disabilities or have a history of struggling academically. The bill, teachers say, would also force them to only teach to the test and not allow them to develop students’ critical thinking skills.
Brown, for instance, said she recently asked her students to pick a favorite character from Of Mice and Men, John Steinbeck’s literary classic, and to create a poster and a Facebook page for that character.
“But I can’t do that anymore because it’s not FCAT-tested,” Brown said.
Catherine Martinez, an art teacher at Pahokee Middle, said she’s concerned about how she will be evaluated because the subject she teaches isn’t measured on a standardized test.
“Does that mean I’m going to be evaluated on how my students do on reading and math?” Martinez asked.
Bill supporters, however, say the current teacher evaluation system isn’t effective and keeps too many bad teachers in the system.
Florida Department of Education Commissioner Eric Smith said in a statement the way teachers are evaluated now is “not useful” and relies too heavily on subjective observation.
“(It) fails to connect our teachers to the work of their students,” Smith said.
The measure calls for teacher evaluations that would require districts to establish a system that rates teachers as “highly effective,” “effective,” “needs improvement” or “unsatisfactory.” The intent of the bill is to pay teachers who are rated as effective and highly effective more fairly.
But teachers are concerned that if SB 736 is signed into law, many will shy away from teaching under-performing students, fearing they will lose money if they do.
At a recent school board meeting, Vice Chairwoman Debra Robinson said teachers who work with academically challenged kids should earn an “extra credit.”
Beverly Blanchette, dean of theater at Dreyfoos School of the Arts in West Palm Beach, pointed out that not all students test well and that a rigid, merit pay system doesn’t take that into account.
“I was one of those children who didn’t test well,” Blanchette said. “But I was able to learn. No test could have foretold where I am today and fortunately my graduation and my teachers’ pay wasn’t based on my test scores.”
Youngberg said she’s concerned that the bill will make teachers more competitive and stop them from sharing teaching strategies if part of their salaries are based on how their students perform.
“The collegial atmosphere of a school is going to be destroyed,” Youngberg said. “It’s going to be a very cutthroat environment.”
Then there’s the question of where the money will come from to pay for the reforms. The district is in a serious budget crunch and facing a $100 million shortfall.
“How are they going to fund giving some teachers more money?” Youngberg wondered. “Or are they going to cut other teachers’ pay? They haven’t thought this bill through.”
Martinez called the legislation a “magic wand” bill.
“The legislature is going to touch everyone on the head and – poof! – everything is going to be perfect,” Martinez said.
But Sara Cuaresma, a biology teacher at Forest Hill High in West Palm Beach, said there’s still time to work out the kinks if the state Education Department and the local school board can work together with teachers to design a better evaluation system.
“If the state really wants to evaluate teachers based on student performance, the teachers and the DOE should do the testing,” Cuaresma said. “If we know what we really want and it’s fair, I might agree with that.”
Staff writer John Kennedy contributed to this story.