In the Friday, April 16th edition of The New York Times, Trip Gabriel and Damien Cave reported on the recent actions of Florida governor Charlie Crist.  In a move that split with the Republican majority of the Florida State Legislature, Governor Crist vetoed a bill that would have linked teachers’ pay to student performance on new end-of-term assessments.

The NYT article calls attention to two different implications related to the Governor’s veto:

  1. It runs contrary to the intentions of the Race to the Top program, created by Arne Duncan, the Secretary of Education.
  2. It will significantly affect Governor Crist’s chances in his upcoming Florida Senatorial campaign.

Both of these items are important when looking at the scope of the vetoing of the bill.  The Republican majority was in favor of the bill, which actually championed some of the objectives of the Race to the Top Program.  Whenever Republicans do something that seems to side with the Obama administration, it deserves attention.  Though the Race to the Top incentive does not specifically outline intentions of creating merit-based pay incentives for education programs, it does offer financial awards to states “that are leading the way with ambitious yet achievable plans for implementing coherent, compelling, and comprehensive education reform.” When a Republican goes against his party by opposing any pro-Obama policy while simultaneously moving to the left (or at least, moving away from the right – Governor Crist is considering slipping off his Republic mantle and running for Senator as an Independent), this warrants significant attention.

The opinion of educators across Florida seems to be that Governor Crist has helped saved thousands of jobs by vetoing the bill. Though this “merit pay bill” was partially intended to raise the chances of the state to receive $700 million in federal grants, teachers feared that it would base the likelihood of renewal of job contracts and the setting of teacher wages on factors that were ultimately outside of their realms of influence – i.e. making students care about what they’re learning, or even forcing them to actually attend school. Though he recognized that the idea of merit-based pay is a potentially positive initiative to help improve education, Governor Crist vetoed the bill, citing the fact that there was not a clear enough measuring mechanism by which such a meritocracy would be judged.

What the article fails to highlight is the what should be done in place of the now squashed bill.  At first glance, the principle of merit-based pay seems appropriate for teachers. Whenever people hear about exorbitant bonuses awarded to Wall Street executives like Hedge Fund investment bankers, there tends to be an immediate uproar.  What people fail to recognize (at least most of the time) is that those bonuses are generally based upon how much money that investment banker makes for the bank.  If Janey Wall-Street makes J.P. Morgan $300 million for the year, she’s going to get a bonus somewhere along the lines of $30 million. If she either causes the bank to lose money or just plain not make enough, she’s fired.  It makes sense as a business model, but when the average American on “main street” sees numbers that big, his first reaction is outrage. This is the very model the Florida legislature proposed with its bill. Those teachers with students achieving the best results on standardized tests – marking the greatest improvement for the district itself – are rewarded money from the government to help continue that improvement.

But the bill was vetoed. To expect teachers to actually teach and improve the education of their students is normal.  But for Governor Crist and his contingent of supporting educators, the attachment of financial considerations and job security to students’ performance could spiral into a dangerous association.  Unlike an investment banker, a teacher cannot simply work harder to guarantee that the his students will become smarter kids.  Countless external factors exist that affect a child’s performance in school. To name a few, one would have to consider mental health (factors like ADHD), home environment, interest in the subject matter, etc.

If there is to be a concerted effort to improve the standing of the U.S. within the context of education rankings world-wide, there needs to be a dynamic and effective approach to revamping the current system. Good teachers should absolutely be rewarded and those who are ineffective should be either given a forceful nudge in the right direction, or eliminated. But the way to enact such improvement is not as black and white as basing salaries on the results of standardized tests and end-of-the-year assessments.

Wall Street has its business model but what about Main Street? Florida’s Merit Based Education Bill (CS/CS/SB 6), though taking steps in the right direction, does seem to adopt a business model drastically different than the one necessary for what is ultimately a job in public service.  Do people perform better with the fear of punishment or the hope of reward? Is striking fear into the hearts of those educators who are at the bottom end of the spectrum an effective means of weeding out the worst aspects of the education system, or do we need to create a means for those ‘poor educators’ to become better teachers?If a merit-based system of pay were to be put into place for educators, it would have to be more heavily emphasizing the opportunity for an increase in pay rather than a potential to terminate one’s job contract – should the results of assessments not be up to snuff. A sustainable solution to education reform might not have been suggested, but the Race to the Top initiative does at least encourage a move towards improvement.

Perhaps creating a bonus-like system for teachers could have the dual affect of improving those test scores while attracting more bright individuals to teach in those public schools in need. There is room for near endless debate on the issue…

A more globally-conscious U.S. is dependent upon the continued education of its citizens. The smarter we are, the more we know, the more we care about the issues that increasingly matter as the globe shrinks to a smaller, more accessible size. By that logic, if we are producing smarter kids, we should be producing better leaders of tomorrow.  At least, that’s the theory, isn’t it?