The policy is one variant of the accountability approach to improving public schools. The theory is that public schools work badly because no one faces real consequences from failure. Thus, policy should hold teachers and students accountable for their performance.
The accountability approach in general, and the Florida version in particular, sound reasonable at first glance. After all, most private employers use salary increases to encourage productivity. Yet caution about accountability is in order.
To begin, accountability does not address the single biggest problem with public school systems, the lack of competition. The ideal reform of public schools recognizes that government support of education does not require public schools. Instead, government can provide vouchers to parents of school-age children. All schools would then be private, and parents would have a choice about where to educate their children. Competition would generate the compensation schemes, curricula, and testing paradigms that conform to parent preferences.
A second problem with accountability is that teachers can respond in various ways. Some might expend more effort on teaching. But others might instead focus on test-specific skills, or encourage low-performing students to stay home on test days, or get students classified as learning disabled, or encourage cheating on the tests. The evidence suggests that both the good and bad responses occur.
None of this means Florida’s new approach is necessarily ill-advised. Assuming the public school system is not replaced by vouchers, merit-based salary increases might be desirable.
The danger, however, is that focus on accountability crowds out support for vouchers. Vouchers are no panacea, of course. But a true voucher system accomplishes everything achieved by accountability and more. So if accountability reduces support for vouchers, it is probably a bad idea.