Miami schools debut merit pay in Florida

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Ponce de Leon Middle School science teacher Eugenio Machado instructs Gabriel Marino, Stella Leone and Melanie Larson. When Miami-Dade public schools rolled out their performance pay plan to fanfare and cheering last year, it was the first district in Florida to get a head start on what will become a mandated policy in 2014 and felt like it took on frontrunner status in the nation. “We’re on the cutting edge for a large urban district,” said Enid Weisman. Spurred on largely by competition for federal grants, the vast majority of states are in the midst developing performance pay models. Miami’s system is a classic one as far as implementation goes with bonuses rewarded based on student performance on tests; its the kind that research has found doesn’t make a significant change in student performance. So just where exactly does Miami rank among its national peers? With a sensitivity paid to getting teacher feedback and taking a multi-year approach to changing the culture, it holds more promise than failed ones in places like New York. But by sticking to test scores as the only variable, Miami is a step behind the multi-layered approaches in places like Denver and Austin, September 21, 2011. (Photo by Al Diaz/Miami Herald)

In their latest paychecks, thousands of Miami-Dade teachers got an extra bump based on their students’ or schools’ FCAT scores. Some 120 teachers are poised to receive even bigger bumps — $4,000 to $25,000 — for their students’ gains.

The bonuses mark Miami-Dade’s foray into performance pay, a controversial policy that is part of the Obama Administration’s education reform agenda.

As the first district in Florida to implement such a plan, Miami-Dade has a head start on what will become a state requirement in 2014.

As the nation’s fourth-largest school district, it is also trying to succeed where others have failed. Places like New York and Texas have scrapped or deeply slashed their merit-pay systems because of a lack of money or results — or both.

Miami-Dade County Public Schools hopes to build its own success over time by taking it slowly, renegotiating the system each year with the teachers union, which helped create the initial plan.

The transition begins with the bonuses, financed with federal dollars, tied to last school year’s performance. But the new state law requires school districts to eventually tie salaries to teacher effectiveness.

Miami-Dade Superintendent Alberto Carvalho said the district set a pace for reform that both respects teachers and leverages the funding available.

“Even though it’s not a perfect system, it is the best one in the nation,” he said. “It was done — rather than by imposition — through negotiation.”

Historically, teachers’ salaries have been determined by two factors: years of experience and credentials like advanced degrees.

A national movement, spurred by competition for federal grants like President Barack Obama’s $4.3 billion Race to the Top, is aiming to change that. Politicians in cash-starved states all over the country have promised to start merit pay plans. That’s despite the fact that most of the research on performance pay has found no significant impact on student performance.

Florida, by being the first state to adopt a salary structure based only on teacher performance, hopes to change that.

Teacher evaluations

This story is part of a series by The Hechinger Report and newspapers in Florida. Stories have appeared in both the Miami Herald and Bradenton Herald. You can read the entire package on our site.

You can also read our award-winning series from 2010 in partnership with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that took an in-depth look at teacher quality and effectiveness.

Race to the Top dollars — $14 million for this first year — will fund Miami-Dade’s plan through 2014. But when the grant runs out, that’s when the state mandate starts. In 2014, all Florida school districts must revamp how they pay teachers under SB 736 that is being challenged in court by the state’s teachers union.

The law requires that teachers receive a grade based in part on student scores. A statistical equation, called a “value-added model,” will weigh student test scores and other factors to evaluate a teacher. That grade, combined with principal observations, will determine if they qualify for more pay.

For Miami-Dade teachers who do not teach FCAT subjects — such as P.E., chemistry or drama — their entire school’s FCAT reading scores will be factored into their reviews for the 2011-12 school year. Eventually, under state law, there will be a test for every subject that will be used to evaluate students and teachers.

In the first wave of bonuses, about 85 percent of the Miami-Dade district’s 20,000-plus teachers qualify for extra money in four categories, depending on how their school, department or students scored on the FCAT. Most bonuses range from about $500 to just more than $1,500. Some teachers will not see any extra money.

The local union, the United Teachers of Dade, ratified the system with a majority vote. One teacher has challenged the ratification with a state commission.

Science teacher Eugenio Machado, 45, received just over $1,000 from two categories — for school-wide and his team’s performance at Ponce de Leon Middle School, which has maintained an A grade since 2005-06. “I do believe in the idea.

They still need to work on it. Right now it’s too narrow,” said Machado. Machado, who was previously named the school’s teacher of the year, said he doesn’t teach for the money. “It’s nice to have the validation, the pat on the back.”

In Broward, the district and teachers are starting to work through a new evaluation system. For this school year, FCAT scores will factor into half of a teacher’s review. Teachers will start attending sessions this month to learn more about how the new plan, which the Broward Teachers Union approved in August after three years of stalled contract negotiations.


For work in 2010-2011, Miami-Dade teachers could earn performance bonuses in four ways. Base pay remains the same, and teachers can qualify in multiple categories. They are:

  • Their school made improvement on its FCAT scores, such as a school raising a state letter grade or a B- or C-ranked school improving its overall FCAT points.
  • hey were part of a team of teachers who improved math or reading proficiency or moved the lowest 25 percent of students.
  • A high percentage of their individual students — 90 percent or more — made learning gains on the FCAT.
  • They rank as the top-performing teachers — 10 each in reading and math — in each region and among the district’s group of struggling schools. The top ranking will be based on the highest consistent student gains over three years. That top incentive pay will range from $4,000 for teachers ranked 4-10, $8,000 for third, $12,000 for second and $25,000 for the top-ranked in math and reading, separately.

Anticipating some hiccups the first year, the union has set up an appeals process, said union president Pat Santeramo. “We’ll be able to track where the consistent problems are, and hopefully that can lead to overall corrections of flaws there may be in the system.”

Many parents are concerned about how performance pay will play out in the classroom. Lolli McLeroy of Hollywood said she fears it will drive teachers away from working with students like her 8-year-old daughter, who is autistic. “What is going to be the motivation for teachers to teach kids who have trouble on the test?” she said. “What sense would it make if dentists got paid based on how many patients did or didn’t get cavities?”

Experts like Frederick Hess, an education policy expert at the conservative American Enterprise Institute think tank, have argued that merit pay systems that reward almost everyone are almost guaranteed to be disappointing.

If about 85 percent of teachers get something extra, “it’s hard to give very much money to anybody, so it’s hard for it to really make much of a difference,” he said.

The point of performance pay, Hess said, should be to rethink how good teachers are using their time and give them various promotions or increased time with students — and then reward them accordingly.

“That’s absolutely possible under what the Florida state system is going to create,” he said. “It’s certainly not automatic.”

Miami-Dade Assistant Superintendent Enid Weisman, who oversees human resources, said she would have preferred to see more and larger bonuses for fewer teachers.

Karen Aronowitz, United Teachers of Dade president, said she worked to get the best deal for teachers, even though she doesn’t agree with the system in principle.

“I’m going to make sure, if there’s a distribution of dollars, that we’re not leaving money on the table that can be put into the hands of our educators, and that it’s as fairly and widely distributed as we can negotiate,” she said.

Ponce de Leon Principal Anna Rodriguez says merit pay is a move in the right direction — treating teachers in a professional manner and compensating them for realizing change. Like other district officials, she recognizes the initial merit-pay plan isn’t perfect. “It’s very difficult to try and fly a plane and implement this plan when it’s not 100 percent perfect,” she said, echoing Carvalho. “Which I believe is the beauty of it. We can change it as we go.”

Still, under the state law, SB 736, the plan’s basic premise will remain the same.

By 2014, the district will be locked into whatever system it has decided upon. The law requires that teachers deemed effective or highly effective receive an increased base salary, not just a yearly bonus.

School districts in 45 states have some form of merit pay, according to the National Center on Performance Incentives at Vanderbilt University in Nashville.

Those systems range widely, from providing bonuses based on test scores and classroom observations — like Florida’s plan — to using complex metrics for evaluations and several avenues for teachers to boost their paychecks.

Denver’s ProComp system is one example. By taking hard-to-fill positions — like high school math teacher — or going to high-need schools, participating in extra professional development or meeting two goals they set at the beginning of the year with their principals, teachers can earn from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars more each year.

Piloted in 1999, ProComp has shown promise. Teachers who were required to participate had higher first-year achievement than those hired prior to it, according to a 2010 report by the University of Colorado-Boulder School of Education.

But other factors could have played into that success.

Miami-Dade is banking on teacher input to set it apart from unsuccessful programs elsewhere.

The district will listen to feedback each year before implementing changes. “It allows us to go back and review,” Weisman said. “With others, it was just a one step, ‘This is what it is.’ ”

Hialeah Senior High writing teacher Kathy Pham said she didn’t feel teachers had enough of a voice in all the impending changes. She received just over $1,000 in the first wave of bonuses and was glad the federal grant money went to teachers. But she’s concerned about the state’s long-term merit-pay plan. “There are so many things that are being done to us that don’t have educationally sound value or practice to them. I don’t think the legislators understand how complex and complicated this is,” she said.

Susan Burns, at Vanderbilt’s National Center on Performance Incentives, said collaboration — rather than “knee-jerk responses” — characterizes some of the most promising systems.

“One of the things that is real important is the involvement of various partners,” Burns said, noting that places with long-standing systems involved teachers unions in crafting the plans. “They have not just been top down.”

Yet collaboration isn’t a guarantee for success. In New York City, a performance pay plan that was rolled out in 2007, with support from the city’s teachers union, rewarded entire schools on their progress in raising student test scores.

Officials scrapped the program after a study by Harvard economist Roland Fryer discovered that it didn’t lead to increased student achievement. If anything, schools that took part in the program began to do worse.

Randi Weingarten, the American Federation of Teachers president and president of the New York City union at that time, said the best compensation programs base teacher pay on their skills or reward them for collaboration like peer coaching. As for plans that dole out bonuses based on test scores, “none of those merit-pay plans have ever worked,” she said.

This story originally appeared in the Miami Herald on September 30, 2011.

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Sarah Butrymowicz

Sarah Butrymowicz is senior editor for investigations. For her first four years at The Hechinger Report, she was a staff writer, covering k-12 education, traveling… See Archive

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