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Article of Interest - Education Reform

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Bridges4Kids LogoLaw Aims to Lure Teachers to Low-performing Schools
by Kimberly Miller, Palm Beach Post, February 22, 2004
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Florida's school leaders have cajoled, lured with high-money bonuses, and even forced good teachers into low-performing schools with limited success.

But a new law, and a tough-talking education chancellor, aim to get experienced teachers into low-performing classrooms by reforming their pay so they'll be the ones seeking out jobs in challenging schools.

The law, passed last year, requires a new four-step career ladder for teachers and prohibits poor and high-minority schools from having more first-year and out-of-field teachers than a school district's overall average.

How school officials accomplish that feat is up to them, and the laws bans them from signing teacher work contracts that don't include the new rules.

Chancellor Jim Warford, who is in charge of kindergarten through 12th grade, told state board of education members last week he will do whatever it takes to enforce the law and is ready to battle teacher unions that may oppose a status quo change.

"I will work toward nothing else than a radical change in how teachers are paid and awarded for their hard work," Warford said. "We have told them the bar would be raised on performance pay, and we now have statutory language to insist it occurs."

Experience hard to find

The language targets high-minority, poor and D- and F-graded schools, and it means schools like Westward Elementary in West Palm Beach will have to start looking harder for more experienced teachers.

The average years of experience for teachers in Palm Beach County elementary schools last year was 14. Teachers at Westward, which has 82 percent of its students taking a free or reduced-price lunch, had an average seven years of experience.

In fact, just six of the 27 elementary schools targeted this year as needing extra academic assistance had average teacher experience levels last year of more than 14 years.

"We always look for an experienced person, whether we get them or not is another question," said Tammy Ferguson, principal of Village Academy in Delray Beach, whose teachers have an average 9 1/2 years of experience. "You need to do more mentoring when you have new teachers. It's all about how much support they have."

The school district and teachers union in Palm Beach County have just begun discussing how to enforce the new law come August.

And they're likely to have an uphill battle. During the past two years, Superintendent Art Johnson has tried to entice experienced teachers into low-performing schools with a $10,000 bonus. Last year, just 10 teachers accepted the offer. This year, 11 teachers took the bait.

Four school districts, including Broward County, are already using the new career ladder outlined in the law as part of a pilot program.

The ladder has four levels that work in conjunction with the traditional teacher salary ladder, which usually has 25 steps and is used to figure out a teacher's base salary.

The new levels include associate, professional, lead and mentor. Associate and professional teachers receive little to no extra incentives, while lead and mentor teachers receive bigger incentives and heavier workloads.

In Broward County, the contract calls for lead teachers to work an extra half-hour per day, hold two leadership positions in the school and assume teacher training responsibilities. For their efforts, they earn an extra $12,500 a year.

Mentor teachers work an extra hour per-day, help other teachers, develop training seminars and work with low performing students. They receive an extra $20,000 a year.

Raises not in state budget

To encourage veteran teachers to go to low-performing schools, Broward has limited the number of lead and mentor teacher jobs at each school. Veteran teachers at a good school may be tempted to go to a lower-performing school where there won't be as much competition for those jobs.

"Our hope and goal is for people to look for jobs at other sites," said Gary Itzkowitz, field staff representative for the Broward Teachers Union. "You'll wind up with a situation where teachers want to be at those schools rather than being forced."

The Florida Education Association, which represents the state's teachers, is in favor of the new law if it's fully financed by the state.

But Gov. Jeb Bush's budget contains no money for it. Instead, he's holding bonuses hostage to a guarantee the class-size amendment be repealed. If the amendment goes away, $250 million could go to teacher bonuses and the career ladder.

"Our main concern is that the school districts are going to have to foot the bill," said Mark Pudlow, FEA spokesman. "It's taking on the sheen of an unfunded mandate."

Pudlow said he's also heard concerns that mentor teachers are being pulled from classrooms to counsel other teachers, leaving substitutes with their students. And some teachers feel they are being pitted against their colleagues in a battle for the top positions.

Warford said teachers need to rethink the way they are paid, and challenged state lawmakers to come up with even more sweeping changes.

"We've got an 80-year-old pay structure that's not working," Warford said. "The legislators should step up and solve this."


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