Feeling the heat in Miami

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When NCTQ goes into a school district to examine how well its policies and practices align with teacher quality goals, one of the first things we examine is the distribution of ratings teachers earn on their evaluations. District after district has turned over their evaluation data to us, albeit somewhat sheepishly, as they all tend to echo the findings of TNTP's Widget Effect. Not only are their teachers all above average; they all appear to be great in identical ways.

But Miami-Dade, examined in our most recent study, Teacher Quality Roadmap: Improving Policies and Practices in the Miami-Dade County Public Schools, surprised us. It had no evaluation data to analyze, as apparently it's not ever collected.

We're almost inclined to give kudos to Miami-Dade for not upholding a charade. They knew their evaluation data was meaningless, so why go to the trouble of looking at it?

Still, the first step on the road to recovery should be the collection of performance data, a fact which most other districts are scurrying to recognize.

We looked for other evidence that Miami-Dade employs some yardstick to hold its teachers accountable. After all, it's a district that has made some of the biggest jumps in student achievement in the nation and has been a steady contender for the Broad Prize.

We couldn't find anything. For example, last year, Miami-Dade fired for poor performance only 10 teachers out of a workforce of more than 20,000, the lowest rate (<.05%) we have encountered anywhere in the country--not that any school district is yet a model of accountability. Springfield, Massachusetts fired the same number of teachers last year, but its workforce of 2,100 is a small fraction of Miami-Dade's. Los Angeles fired 280 of 29,000 teachers last school year. While no school district should rely on teacher dismissal as the primary driver for improving teacher quality, any high functioning enterprise, be it commercial, governmental or nonprofit, must turn at some time to dismissals as the only viable course of action for some individuals.

Still the district defended its low rate by telling us and the general public in an op-ed published in the Miami Herald that they routinely do not renew the contracts of hundreds of first year teachers, as if the only teachers that need to be held accountable for performance in Miami-Dade are new hires.

Perhaps most troubling, the district's approach to its younger teachers compares poorly to what we have found in other districts. Hit by big budget problems, hundreds of teachers have been laid off over the last several years, all of them new teachers and with little regard for performance. Veterans are never touched.

Further, teachers don't qualify for any sort of significant raise until they've been in the system for 20 some years, with the district's salary schedule reserving 70 percent of raises for the last five years of service. New teachers entering the district are given temporary positions that disappear at the end of the year—not to make it easier to let a low performing first year teacher go (the district already has that power), but seemingly to ensure stability for their more veteran colleagues.

We have no desire to take away from Miami any of its very real accomplishments over the past decade. Its progress is to be celebrated. But the district spent years digging a very deep hole in which the city's youngest citizens were allowed to languish while adults benefitted. If it is to continue to dig its way out, the issues we raise cannot be ignored or dismissed. We know Miami-Dade's students, 70 percent of whom live in poverty, need and deserve more.