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Education

Teachers Sound Off About Merit Pay

https://vimeo.com/43060932">http://vimeo.com/43060932

Hillsborough County teacher Robert Pierce says he's opting out of his school's merit pay system -- for now.

"I'll be honest with you. I don't participate. I think it's a double-edged sword," he said.

But he soon won't have any choice. Lawmakers have mandated merit pay in every Florida school district by 2014.

Pierce and 30 other Hillsborough County teachers recently boarded a bus for Jacksonville to attend a statewide teacher town hall meeting. It was part of the American Graduate project sponsored by public media stations, including WUSF.

The teachers talked about a lot of things: standardized tests, discipline issues, increasing paperwork. But one of the biggest issues on their minds was merit pay.

Thanks to a grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation , Hillsborough County has a head start. Its merit pay program is already in effect.

That doesn't mean teachers like it.

"I think it dissuades others from sharing information. It is almost offensive for those of us who teach for the love of teaching, " teacher Yomel Arranti said.

Several teachers said they already feel overworked. Some of them even graded papers on the four-and-a-half hour bus ride to Jacksonville.

Social Studies teacher Aron Zions says many people THINK teachers have it easy.

"I came here to say…you guys have it wrong sometimes…you don't realize how tough it is to teach- and from the outside it's easy," he said.

Half of Zion's performance review is now based on how much his students improve on standardized tests over a three-year period. He says that's not fair.

"When you talk about teaching you have to realize, it's an art. It's not manufacturing. It's not a sales job, when the commissions come, or you choose the best product and sell it," he said.

"You have to realize when you are teaching, you get the product an the classroom that you have. You need to work with it and adapt to it- and those students become your most important focus."

Does merit pay work? There's little evidence that it raises standardized test scores in the short term. But supporters say merit pay might help attract and keep the best teachers in the classroom.

Arranti says the system punishes teachers with lots of low-income, disabled or immigrant students.

"If you're handed the higher learners, the best performers, you're automatically going to earn merit pay because those are independent learners. So your job is going to be easy, your job is going to be fun.

"But as a teacher you really want to reach the students that are the lower percentile, where there is no reward is merit pay for that, you're almost penalized for that- if those students don't have gains."

It's a sentiment echoed during the televised town-hall event by middle school science teacher Antonio Young.

"We as teachers, we've got a lot of things on our plate. We've got 50 minutes to work with at the middle and high school level," he said.

"We've got this kid over here who has just come into the country and I have to teach that child. I have this kid over here who is 3 or 4 grade levels down and I must teach that child. I have this kid over here who is supposed to be in MENSA.

"I have all of these kids who are kind of middle of the pack and I'm supposed to do miracles with them, sitting in the same classroom, and no one better fail or it's going to effect my paycheck," Young said to applause from other teachers.

Because these teachers say they're already doing everything they can to help their students -- and merit pay isn't going to help.

You can hear more about this on Florida Matters, Tuesday evening at 6:30 on WUSF 89.7 - or anytime at wusf.org/floridamatters.