A weekend interview with Hillsborough schools superintendent MaryEllen Elia
When the state of Florida got its chance to defend its Race to the Top application, Hillsborough County schools superintendent MaryEllen Elia was there. With her district on the leading edge of teacher quality issues nationally, her support for Florida's plan lent some additional weight. Elia spoke with reporter Jeff Solochek about the interview, Race to the Top and teaching reform.
I was interested to see that you went to Washington D.C. with the governor and the commissioner for Race to the Top.
Yes. I was on the team. It included the governor and of course the commissioner, Eric Smith, the chancellor, Frances Haithcock, myself and Alberto Carvahlo, who is the superintendent of Miami-Dade schools.
How did you get chosen to be on that team?
I got a call from the commissioner asking me if I would be willing to go as one of the team members. They were allowed five and I think certainly the experience that we have had in working through some of the issues related to pay for performance for teachers and some of the many goals of Race to the Top -- things that Hillsborough has had on its plate for a while -- I think that was really one of the reasons I was asked.
And once you got to Washington, what was your role? Did you speak a lot? Or were you just there to smile and wave?
No. Not at all. There was a presentation for a half hour to the group of evaluators of Florida's grant for Race to the Top. The group that we spoke to was very well versed in the specifics of the grant. And each member of the team had a portion of the 30 minute time to present factors that they have had experience with. Certainly, the commissioner and the chancellor, who are the major authors of it, presented part of it. The governor talked about the history of the reform and what has really brought us to the point where we are seeing the great effects of this long-term focus on improving education in the state. Then myself and the other superintendent Alberto Carvahlo presented experiences we had that related to the goals of the grant in our districts.
What specifically did you talk about?
I talked about in Hillsborough the commitment that we have had to each of the areas -- assessment and evaluation. And that is a very important part of getting teachers necessary information they need in a much more timely way so they can make decisions about instruction. Of course that is tied to data systems, making sure that we have the capacity to collect data about students and keep a running record of how they are doing throughout the year so we can target support and challenges for those students who are performing very well and need to be challenged.
We also in Hillsborough have been working with our empowering effective teachers grant from the Gates Foundation, and much of that relates to the same goals of Race to the Top. So I talked about what we've been doing there in terms of evaluation and the past experiences that Hillsborough has had with pay for performance under the MAP program, and how this really is a process. You need to continually improve. We've done that with the MAP program and we will continue to do that. Teachers can be very instrumental in making sure this is a fair way to evaluate teachers. We think of course that having peer evaluators is, from the teachers' perspective and the union perspective, very helpful.
Also I talked about the importance of leadership at school sites. There was a recent study we did with Scholastic and the Gates Foundation, and one of the things they found that teachers said was one of the important things was the climate of the school and the leadership that creates and supports great teachers. That's very important and something that we are working on in Hillsborough. Also the attention that we pay to schools that need some extra support and help. In Hillsborough we really focus on that as being focus schools ... and all of the district-level support staff are really focused on helping teachers and administrators at those schools really turn them around.
Did you get a sense from the reviewers that they were liking what they heard?
I think it was a very good conversation we had. After the 30-minute presentation, the committee of reviewers asked some very detailed questions of the presenters. It was obvious they were well versed in our grant, Florida's grant. They wanted some clarifications on things. But it was a very good, I think very productive, conversation.
Do you have any predictions what will happen with the grant proposal?
Well, I certainly hope that Florida is successful with this grant. I think it will be very important to really add the necessary support to not only the state to develop the kinds of things that will support the districts, but to the districts. Fifty percent of the funding will go to the state for developing the infrastructure and the support and the statewide agenda that has to be part of it. But 50 percent will go into the districts that participate in it. I really hope that allows those districts to be able to focus their attention on whatever is necessary to get students moving, support teachers to make sure they are able to do the best they can for students.
What do you say to teachers ... who are saying this is not a good thing and that they don't want to be a part of it?
I really believe when you start focusing on the students and what is necessary to support them, our teachers unilaterally indicate that we need to give them the kinds of tools that are necessary and supportive of having individual kinds of approaches to student needs. And much of this grant in both assessments, evaluation, data collection and developing great teachers is focused on improving teachers as professionals. I really believe that teachers are great professionals. They want to get better, just like other professionals in this country. We need to help them and support them to get there.