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Education news and notes from Tampa Bay and Florida

A weekend interview about teacher quality and a possible Gates Foundation grant with Hillsborough schools superintendent MaryEllen Elia



Elia_3 There's talk around the nation about the need to change the way teachers are trained, evaluated and paid. Even President Obama has called for reforms in this area. The Hillsborough school district hopes to get on board with the help of a major Gates Foundation grant, for which it's one of 10 finalists. Superintendent MaryEllen Elia spoke with reporter Jeff Solochek about her goals with the grant and teacher reform.

Tell me first about grant one you're looking into and what it would do for the school district.

We received a call in February from the Gates Foundation asking if we would be interested in examining whether a partnership would be a good thing between the Gates Foundation and Hillsborough County. They had done a thing screening 16,000 districts in the country. And they came up with 20 districts that they wanted to look at and get more information on and see if they were interested in working on this project.

What did they tell you was the reason why Hillsborough would be one of those?

Apparently they have a number of things that they looked at. And it was all done by Gates or contracted services to Gates, because we didn't know much about it. I know that it had to do with the kind of work that you had previously done and your commitment to working on issues related to teaching and good teaching. But I really don't know. We weren't part of exactly what the screens were. ... When they called, they asked if we were interested, and I said, "Yes, we are." And they came in with a team of people and they met with people throughout the county and the community to get a real feel of this community and our teachers and the teachers union and the administration. Kind of how we run.

What did they ask?

They talked to us about the relationship we had with the Classroom Teachers Association. They also talked to them. They wanted to see how we function as an organization. They looked particularly at my staff, to see what kind of leadership we have both at the district and school level. They also interviewed the School Board, talked about the commitment the board had moving forward with student achievement by addressing issues that would affect good teachers. They talked to the business community. They met with the foundation. So it was a pretty good screening of Hillsborough County. And then, after that, about a month or two later we got a call saying, "You have made it to the Top 10. Are you interested in moving forward?"

And of course you said no, right?

I said, Yes we are interested. So then, the 10 school districts had to put together a team of five people. ... They said there should be a leadership person from the union, so we used the union president, Jean Clements. A person from the School Board, so we used Carol Kurdell, the School Board chair, and myself. And then two people from my staff, and we used the people that are currently in curriculum and instruction, and in technology. And so the team was then invited to a convening. All 10 school districts were at the convening, where they answered a lot of questions. We were also given the opportunity to select a management team who came in and would work with the district for the next 60 days to come up with the proposal that we submitted to Gates.

It sounds like they really want you to have it. It's not a simple blind application.

This was not like any other grant process that I've been involved in, and I've done a lot of them. ... The 10 districts, knowing they were not going to fund all 10, they put the 10 districts with the teams. They hired the teams. Our team we selected was the  Boston Consulting Group. ... The very next week they ended up here ... to help us come up with all the data points and to do the analysis and to organize focus groups. ... Six weeks later we were in Atlanta with all the districts again. ... The very last meeting was in Seattle where we presented our proposal to the Gates people. ... 

Let's say that this comes through and you get the $100 million, how do you see this affecting and changing the school district? 

I think it's going to be a very substantial shift in the culture of the district related to our teachers and the work that they do. There are many components involved in it. Basically, it changes the culture to a culture of developmental teaching skills. So that every person is evaluated not just by the principal but by a team of peers. So there is a group of teachers, teamed, who will go and work and evaluate teachers throughout the district. Thirty percent of an evaluation of a teacher will be based on the principal's evaluation, 30 percent will be based on this team of peers, and 40 percent will be based on student achievement. You know, Hillsborough County has been really involved in pay for performance for years. We have multiple programs, we've been really successful in moving the MAP program -- although we all accept that  MAP has some issues. That we have worked on pay for performance and realized some of the problems with it helped us to be in a position to be competitive for the grant.

Do you think that parents and students will notice a difference right away? Or will it take a long time? This doesn't sound like something you can snap your fingers and make happen.

Oh, no, no, no. It's not. It's a process, and it will be the implementation of new evaluation tools ... and training of the teams to go out and work in collaborative ways with the teachers. It really encompasses recruitment and placement of teachers, induction of new teachers and the support that they get. The evaluation will be new. Professional development will change to be responsive to every teacher and their needs individually. And then of course the compensation and career ladder will be put in place. It's a culture changing process that we believe over a period of time -- and we need to work with our teachers, the Classroom Teachers Association, and our administrators -- to work through this process. It's not, for certain, going to happen overnight. This is a seven year grant. ... 

Do yo feel like you'll be getting any static from teachers who might fear this is a way to take away their security?

Well, I think we've been working with the union all the way on this, and we're going to continue to do that. We have plans. But every time you work your way through something, you have to look at it and make sure that it really fits the particular situation you're faced with. We think it will be a very powerful thing for teachers. Our teachers union had made a proposal similar to this about eight or 10 years ago, and at the time the district wasn't able to fund it. ...

How does this grant tie into the smaller grant you got from the Gates Foundation? Are they connected?

Well, the  smaller grant is a grant that specifically addresses the issues about research for what really needs to be done to get a quality teacher. It is being done again in conjunction with the CTA and it is a two-year grant. It is totally voluntary. Teachers can take part if they want to. The researchers that are funded through Gates are Harvard researchers who are trying to really determine what is it in a classroom that makes for successful student achievement.

Do you worry that you have a private foundation paying for this, as opposed to taxpayers paying for this? Because this is stuff that sounds like you would want to do regardless.

Well. We're certainly not in a position to do it. Let me separate the two. ... The research grant is not something a school district could take on. It requires some skilled researchers to come in and do the kind of work that would make it without question accepted as a good model for gathering the data on teacher effectiveness. It's real important that outside, not district staff, be involved in something like that. ... It's important that you have, I think, outside funding for that. ... 

I wonder if the Gates Foundation, if it bothers educators that they have to rely on these big foundations.

Well, on the big teacher effectiveness grant, I can say to you we are dedicated to improving what is happening in every classroom. We feel like teachers are great professionals and we've got to help them to get better. Well, given that, there are a lot of tools that we are not in a position to be able to get for teachers. This grant allows us to do that.

So we find out about this in the middle of November.

That's what we anticipate. Yes.

And after that would it be half a year ramp up and begin at the next school year? Or would it be something that you just jump into because you have the plan already there?

One of the pieces we already have started on. As you pointed out, regardless of whether you've got the money or not, there are some things you've just got to do. And one of the things we have already approved at the board, is a contract for  Charlotte Danielson. She is a college professor who has come up with a design that has been used in a number of school districts to evaluate teachers in the classroom. So we have already started to work with Charlotte Danielson and her team to revamp the evaluation that we're currently using with our teachers. Charlotte Danielson is leading a team of CTA members and administrators on how can we give the fairest evaluation of what happens in a classroom. ... If we get this grant, that's one of the key things we have to continue. But yes, as soon we get this grant, we'll start ramping up all of the different initiatives.

Do you think this will change the nature of people applying for teaching jobs and remaining in teaching jobs?

Yes. I think we're really hoping that we can attract great teachers to the classrooms. Obviously , I've been a teacher for 39 years of my life. I believe that's a very good, worthwhile career for people to have. But unfortunately that's not the case for a lot of young people. Although I think we're seeing more and more people saying a career as a teacher is a very good thing to do. We've got to make sure our teachers are paid enough that they can live and have a family and support their family in a way that we would like them to, and still be great in the classroom with their kids.

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


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