How to attract (and retain) high-quality teachers

Florida State Representative Erik Fresen has a plan to attract high quality teachers to work in Florida schools. He would like to make the $44M “Best and Brightest Scholarship Program” a permanent fixture in the state’s budget. The program would pay teachers in years 1-7 of their career a bonus of up to $8500 if their SAT or ACT scores were in the 80th percentile for their test year and they are rated as highly effective by their school district.

As you can imagine, this is a controversial proposal. There have also been concerns that the plan may discriminate based on race or age. Teachers and their representatives have been vocal in expressing their frustration with the program. In this recent article however “Fresen defended the program Friday, saying he hoped those who oppose it appreciate his effort to attract high-performing college students as teachers.”

I absolutely appreciate his efforts to recruit highly qualified teachers to my chosen profession. Students and parents can only benefit from having highly qualified teachers in their classrooms. As a colleague, being surrounded by highly qualified teachers would give me a wealth of resources to improve my own practice. However, Fresen’s plan is NOT the way to go.

1. Research suggests that there is little difference between academic performance of students in college based on their SAT or ACT scores. In fact, many colleges are beginning to move away from test scores as a basis of admission in the first place.

2. There is nothing in the legislation that requires a teacher to stay in the profession. If a qualified teacher receives the bonus all seven years that it is offered, they can walk away with an additional $59,500 pre-tax dollars in their pocket. Does the state really have money to invest in personnel that have made no commitment to stay in the profession? And, should anyone realistically expect a teacher to stay for their eighth year after a $8500 pay cut?

3. The math doesn’t work. The average Florida teacher salary was $47,950 for the 2014-2015 school year. While the Bureau of Labor statistics lists the annual mean wage for all Floridians during that time as $41,820. Most new teacher salary scales begin around $36,000 so the $8500 bonus is a nice boost. However, this data includes positions that do not require the college degrees or licensing a teaching position does. And if a person was drawn to teaching based on the money alone there are many other positions with similar preparation requirements that pay substantially more money on average and over time.

Fresen is on the record saying “If you have a better idea, bring that to me.” Instead of trying to entice college students into the career, how about supporting existing programs that have been linked to student achievement and teacher retention?

Using the same $44 million the Florida legislature could do the following:

1. Fund the commitments the legislature has previously made. The “Teach In Florida” website was created to attract teachers to the state. The site lists the Dale Hickam Excellent Teaching Program as a recognition program created to pay bonuses to teachers who obtained National Board Certification (NBC) and those NBC teachers that mentored their peers. It also subsidized the fees teachers paid to obtain their initial certification. Many studies have demonstrated the positive effect of certification for teachers and students. In my own school district, NBC Teachers rank higher on written and value added data measures than non-NBC teachers   However, since 2008 the bonus program has not been funded and the fee subsidy was eliminated.

2. Distribute $10,476 to each of the 4,200 Florida public schools. Those funds could be used to pay for stipends to teacher mentors at every site. In my school district, mentors were found to be such a valuable resource for not just increasing teacher retention but improving teacher effectiveness that they are looking to expand those positions even as they dismantle the peer evaluation program. These mentor positions could also be limited to teachers that are highly effective.

3. Support Educators Rising. Educators Rising connects aspiring teachers in high school with peers and mentors that guide them through the teacher preparation process. The program is aligned with the National Board standards for highly accomplished teaching, and nurtures local talent within communities.

4. Develop teacher student loan forgiveness programs. Facing teacher shortages, many states have begun to offer student loan forgiveness for college graduates in public service occupations, including teaching.

4. Increase per pupil spending by $16 per student. That would bring our state funding within $1500 to the national average of $10,000 per student.

I appreciate that Rep. Fresen and the Florida Legislature continue to show their commitment to public education. However I, like many of my colleagues, think there is a better way. Investment in long-term solutions like those I mentioned don’t make for snappy sound bites but they do shift the conversation from unproven gimmicks to solutions that lead to positive, long-term impact for all our students. I hope FL Legislature will consider making these investments today to produce more of the Best and Brightest graduates tomorrow.

(Note: In the interest of full disclosure my SAT scores from Fall, 1992 were Verbal 510/Math 630. The 80th percentile scores for that same period were Verbal 520/Math 590. However, as a “Non-Classroom Teacher” I was not eligible for the bonus.)

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