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Miami-Dade School District rewards top teachers with performance bonuses

Mercedes Mesa was “shocked,” “humbled” and almost speechless.

The fourth-grade language arts and reading teacher at Palm Springs Elementary knew she was good at her job. But to be named one of the top teachers in Miami-Dade County — and get a $2,500 bonus?

“I teach because I love to teach. I don’t teach because of the pay,” she said. “But I’m taken aback that we’re finally recognized. I’m just overwhelmed.”

Mesa was one of 58 teachers invited Monday to the Miami-Dade School Board’s downtown auditorium where they learned their students’ stellar performance had earned them checks worth thousands.

With many in the audience unaware they were there to get bonuses, Superintendent Alberto Carvalho called groups of teachers down, presented them with oversize checks, and then together they held up one finger — “No. 1” — as their peers cheered.

Monday’s pomp and circumstance marked the second year of the school district’s unique foray into performance pay, a controversial issue pushed both by the Obama administration’s Race to the Top program and the Florida Legislature.

Miami-Dade became the first — and only — school system in Florida last year to implement a merit pay program. It did so as part of the federal Race to the Top program, which funded the bonuses as an incentive to create merit pay for teachers.

In creating the program, district leaders wanted extra time to work out kinks in their merit pay system before 2014, when state law mandates that student test scores be tied to teacher pay and evaluations. And they also wanted to reward the school district’s best educators at a time when they said there was little money for raises.

“Here we are again in the second year as the only district in the state of Florida, and I’m told perhaps in the country, that has used Race to the Top funding to award financial incentives to teachers,” said Carvalho, who chaired the group that developed the application for Florida’s successful 2010 bid.

“There is no better investment in my mind.”

Through Race to the Top, Florida received more than $700 million, which is distributed to school districts annually through 2014. Miami-Dade received $17 million this year, $14 million of which went to finance its performance pay program.

Miami-Dade teachers were again able to receive three types of bonuses this year, worth about $300 to $600. They could qualify based on schoolwide performance, team performance and the work of their individual students. A fourth, more valuable batch of bonuses went to the district’s top-performing reading and math teachers whose students, when compared to those of other teachers, showed the highest gains over the last three years.

But there were differences from last year.

The district cut the number of top performers in half this year and shrank top bonuses to a high of $5,000 compared to a high of $25,000 last year. The other smaller bonuses also shrank in value and were made available to a greater number of teachers through an inclusion of new factors.

Carvalho said that was in response to feedback that teachers “would rather see slightly smaller awards but greater recognition of a greater number of teachers.”

He said the district also minimized reliance on the state’s model for calculating teacher effectiveness out of concerns over its fairness.

Overall, close to 6,000 teachers received between $700 and the top $6,300 bonus this year, Carvalho said. The bonuses should be in their next paychecks.

Many teachers still aren’t eligible to be named top performers because state data limits comparisons to only reading and math. That left Miami Beach Senior High history teacher Nadia Zananiri feeling that many teachers had traded tenure for peanuts.

“I think if you ask most teachers if they’d rather have $300 or job security, they’d say job security,” she said.

And while United Teachers of Dade President Karen Aronowitz said she was happy to see the district “spread the money as widely as possible,” she said she remains opposed to the performance-pay concept behind the bonuses.

“I don’t support the Race to the Top ideology,” she said, “that there’s some kind of competition and that teachers operate best in a competitive environment.”

Carvalho countered Monday that the current step system negotiated decades ago, in which teachers are paid based on years of teaching and credentials, creates an “unacceptable disparity” between teachers and is “broken.”

“The world as we know it has changed,” he said. “That needs to change.”

Politics aside, Monday was a day of celebration for teachers like Susan Fletcher, a sixth-grade language arts teacher at Ada Merritt K-8 who won $2,500 after many hours of grading papers, holding student-teacher conferences and brainstorming ways to “encourage critical thinking.”

“It’s great that they’re going above and beyond,” she said of the district. “We all work very hard.”