Making the Grade: How should our teachers be gauged?

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SARASOTA - The goal for our education system is simple: teach our children the skills they'll need to succeed in life. But efforts to reach that goal in Florida has been mixed.

Education Week rankings place Florida at #6 in the nation, but we still trail much of the country in per-student spending and teacher's pay.

The state's answer to improving our schools is standardized testing and merit pay for teachers. The better their students perform on those tests, the more money they can earn. But the formula is more complicated than it sounds, and will impact the next generation of teachers.

Maureen Finley is in her fourth year of teaching physics and geometry at Riverview High School. She comes from a family of teachers; her grandfather, father and sister are all educators, and so is her mom, just down the hall.

Pat Bliss has been teaching English and journalism for 35 years now and loves being a teacher -- a passion she passed down to her daughters. "At the end of the day, if I can go home and know that my students enjoyed what they did in class and know that they're going to use that somehow in the future, that's what I'm here for. That's what I want to achieve," says Finley.

"I've just always enjoyed the wonderful aspect of working with kids, and personalities, and rewards you get from seeing people you taught years ago come back and say hi to you and thank you," says Bliss.

Bliss knows her daughter’s teaching careers will be very different from her own. In just the last two years, the state has sent teachers on a see-saw ride, first cutting school funding by $1.7 billion, then increasing it last year by a billion dollars, and this year, the governor proposes adding another billion dollars and change.

In the near future, a teacher's pay will be based on the test scores of their students. Even Sarasota County School superintendent Lori White wonders how that can be done in a fair way. "There are things that are very essential to quality teaching that can never be measured by a multiple choice test."

And it’s not just teachers; some parents complain you can't measure a child's success by a test score. "She's so much more than one number, and I think all of our children's not fair to assess a teacher based on a child's individual one test, one day in time. I mean, it’s not fair to the child," says parent Michelle McLean.

"Everybody's different, every child learns differently, and if you're able to reach that potential in every child, then I believe you are successful. Sometimes it doesn't come out that way in test scores, though," says Finley.

Parents, teachers and lawmakers all agree that we need the best and brightest in the classroom. But how we measure those qualities is still up for debate. And the outcome will forever change what happens in the classroom for the next generation of teachers and students.

"I think the focus is becoming more about crunching numbers, and it maybe kills a little bit of the joy that those of us who've been teaching for a long time have been able to experience," says Bliss.

It's clear, those who teach, love what they do. They aren't in the profession to get rich. But drawing talented and qualified people to the profession and retaining them is becoming more challenging.

Merit pay is due to start in 2014, something the state's teachers union is challenging in court.