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Education news and notes from Tampa Bay and Florida

Behind the Gates money, a new ed reform strategy



TAMPA -- As we reported today and last August in the St. Petersburg Times, the Hillsborough County schools may be holding a $100 million lottery ticket from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

If it won, the district would use the money to revamp its teacher evaluation system; add a corps of 200 peer evaluators to help rate colleagues; bolster its teacher induction and mentoring system; and create a cutting-edge pay system that would allow high performing teachers to jump ahead on the salary scale.

So who are these Gates people, and what are they up to?

As it happens, the foundation has been much in the news lately, due in part to the lagging economy and the Obama administration's decision to invest $5 billion into innovative and reform-minded education programs.

The Associated Press reports that the foundation has offered $250,000 to each state that wants help crafting a Gates-friendly application for federal "Race to the Top" funds. While a few pundits have complained, cash-strapped states have jumped at the chance to get an edge in the aforementioned race for federal dollars.

It's only been a year since the foundation stepped back into the fray of education reform, after a pause to reflect on the $4 billion-worth of spending it made on small schools and other innovations during the previous eight years.

In announcing the foundation's latest efforts, Microsoft founder and co-chairman Bill Gates conceded that its previous investments had largely fallen short.

"In some districts, we got tacit agreement to move forward, but then the schools weren't willing to do the hard things -- like removing ineffective staff or significantly increasing the rigor of the curriculum," he told a national audience in late 2008.

"It's clear that you can't dramatically increase college readiness by changing only the size and structure of a school," Gates said. "The schools that made dramatic gains in achievement did the changes in design and also emphasized changes inside the classroom."

The foundation's lesson, officials said, was to focus on the critical importance of developing effective teachers and getting them into more classrooms. It announced plans to spend $1 billion on new reforms, with the long-term goal of making 80 percent of America's high school graduates ready for college.

Half the money would go toward improved data-gathering, analysis, and the development of common national standards and assessments. The other half would fund teacher effectiveness studies in three to five school districts. Those "deep-dive" sites -- potentially including Hillsborough -- would serve as the foundation's laboratory for identifying, training and rewarding effective teachers, said education program director Vicki Phillips at the 2008 gathering.

Being a private foundation, Gates gets to put money behind the things it believes in, like performance pay, incentives for working in high-needs schools, and tough standards for awarding tenure to teachers.

It also gets to say what it thinks, sometimes in unvarnished terms.

Speaking to a crowd filled with luminaries from the ed policy world -- including then-Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings and the man who would soon fill her shoes, Arne Duncan -- Phillips said that many teachers and parents were a bit fed up with student testing. Collecting data on student performance is important, she said, but it can easily be misused.

"Let's be honest, one of the main things we do with data is make ourselves look good," said Phillips, the former superintendent of the Portland (Ore.) Public Schools. "We have a big problem when kids are looking great on state tests and then can't get into college."

By the time it was all over, education historian Diane Ravitch told the Gotham Schools blog, it was clear who was the most important education policymaker in the room.

"In a way, being Secretary of Education is less significant than being Bill Gates," she said, referring to the historically paltry federal sums available for discretionary spending. "I'd rather be Bill Gates."

-- Tom Marshall, Times Staff Writer

[Last modified: Tuesday, May 25, 2010 10:41am]


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