Teachers fume over bonus program tied to ACT, SAT scores

Erik Fresen 2

by: Leslie Postal|Orlando Sentinel

September 23, 2015

Florida teachers have about a week left to apply for a $10,000 bonus program that has exasperated many because eligibility hinges on their ACT or SAT scores, even if those college-admissions exams were taken decades ago.

“It’s absurd to think that anything I did when I was 17 years old should be affecting my pay right now,” said James Brendlinger, a 23-year veteran who teaches at Lake Howell High School in Seminole County.

But Brendlinger qualifies because he did well on the SAT in 1989, so the theater teacher applied ahead of the Oct. 1 deadline.

He could not pass up the chance for such a windfall, he said, but like many teachers, he found the bonus program’s requirements baffling. Others called it insulting and nonsensical, saying teachers should be in line for a bonus if they’ve proved themselves in the classroom, not because they did well their college-entrance exams.

Florida’s Best and Brightest Teacher Scholarship Program was funded by the Florida Legislature this spring. The one-year, $44 million program aims to give up to 4,402 teachers $10,000 bonuses each, though the rewards will be cut if more teachers qualify.

The Orange County school district said 280 teachers, or about 2 percent of its 13,800 instructors, have applied so far, while in Lake County 27 teachers out of about 2,900 have, and in Osceola County 41 teachers out of 3,600 have. Seminole schools did not have a tally yet.

The program was envisioned as a way to lure smart college students into teaching. But as devised, it will reward those already in the classroom, whether they started teaching this August or 30 years ago.

Teachers are eligible for the bonuses if they scored in the top 20 percent on their college-entrance exams in the year they took them. For teachers who took the exams in 2005, for example, that means a score of at least 25 out of 36 on the ACT or at least 610 verbal and 630 math out of 800 on the SAT.

New teachers face no other requirements, but experienced ones also must have been rated “highly effective.”

Many teachers long out of high school said they spent more than $60 ordering new copies of their old ACT or SAT score reports, often paying for rush service so they’d have reports back in time.

In a state where the average teacher earns just less than $50,000, a $10,000 bonus program cannot be ignored, but its test-score component has ignited fierce criticism.

“It has nothing to do with my teaching ability. It’s just insane,” said Steve Hyde, an English teacher at Winter Park High School in Orange. “I don’t know what the legislators were thinking.”

Hyde, in his 19th year of teaching, does not qualify because his math SAT score was too low.

Some colleagues even prepped to take the ACT earlier this month — the SAT wasn’t offered soon enough for the Oct. 1 deadline — hoping to boost scores. Hyde decided work and family obligations meant he had no time to devote to that task, especially because it’s not clear the ACT scores will be back in time.

Rep. Erik Fresen, R-Miami, said he proposed the program because of an ongoing teacher shortage and because those entering the teaching profession “are rarely among the highest academic achievers in their classes.”

He wanted to help change that, he wrote to the Lake Brantley High School student newspaper, which had emailed him questions about the program. “A $10,000 addition to the starting salary … is a good incentive to make you seriously considering becoming an educator.”

Fresen, chairman of the House education budget committee, was not available for comment, but his office sent the Orlando Sentinel a copy of what he’d sent to the Seminole school’s paper.

The lawmaker called it a “misconception” that the program was about “recognizing and rewarding the ‘best and brightest’ teachers in our classrooms.” It’s about attracting new candidates, he said, but does provide an “overdue reward” to “highly effective educators” with top ACT or SAT scores.

That explanation makes little sense to the National Council on Teacher Quality, which has been supportive of some of the Legislature’s efforts to improve the teaching profession.

“I can’t fathom what the purpose of this is,” said Kate Walsh, the council’s president, except “as a ploy to drive teachers nuts.”

If Florida wanted to lure better-caliber high-school students into teaching, Walsh said, it could follow the city of Houston’s lead. It is working with the University of Houston to offer students in the top 15 percent of high-school classes tuition breaks if they enter the university’s teaching program and then teach for at least four years.

J.P. Royer, who teaches language arts and social studies to fifth-graders, said he felt insulted when he realized a lower-than-needed math SAT score made him ineligible.

A teacher at Altamonte Elementary in Seminole, he has been tapped to speak at national conferences and one year was a finalist for teacher of the year in Seminole, where he’s taught for 18 years.

“Just because you score high doesn’t mean you know what you’re doing in the classroom,” he said.

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