TAMPA — If America wants to transform public schools, look no further than Hillsborough County.
That was the message from the man in charge of President Barack Obama's education agenda during a visit Thursday. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said few districts have managed to launch such aggressive reforms in partnership with teachers and their unions.
"I think there is so much the country can learn from what's happening here," Duncan said at the Rampello Downtown Partnership School, flanked by the heads of both national teachers unions. "You have elevated the profession."
But even as national and local leaders focus on teacher quality, Tampa Bay area parents don't agree on whether changes to teacher evaluation, merit pay and tenure can make a real difference in the classroom, according to a new St. Petersburg Times/BayNews9 poll on education issues.
Some 85 percent of respondents rated their own children's teachers as excellent or good. But 57 percent said they favored abolishing tenure protections, just as Florida legislators tried to do last spring. Thirty-one percent of parents backed such protections and 10 percent weren't sure.
"If we went to work and we kept doing something wrong, we would get fired wouldn't we?" said parent Marybeth Coleman, whose two children attend Skycrest Elementary in Clearwater.
Some 86 percent of parents said they believe standardized test scores are very or somewhat important in helping both parents and districts to evaluate teachers. And 51 percent of them would support extra pay for teachers working in high-poverty schools.
Duncan sided with the majority on that one.
"Rewarding teachers who are making a great difference to students' lives in underserved communities, we absolutely have to do that," he said.
Such personal touches can be lost in the fiery national education debate, as hard-line reformers push their views. Last spring, Florida unions dug in their heels after legislators tried to mandate tenure reform and other changes as part of the controversial Senate Bill 6.
But Duncan said such approaches by reformers are ill-conceived.
"I don't think any of us like it when something is imposed on us," he said.
Hillsborough has sought common ground on tenure, toughening standards on awarding it but supporting teachers with peer evaluators and mentors. Those changes are part of a seven-year, $202 million reform effort with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
Superintendent MaryEllen Elia said it wasn't easy, but all sides agreed that weak teachers who can't raise their game will lose their jobs.
"It's part of being a professional," she said.
For years, unions have resisted efforts to link teacher pay to student test scores. But they're backing Hillsborough's efforts to do just that, using a value-added calculation over three years to determine 40 percent of a teacher's evaluation, along with principal and peer ratings.
"All the people who are in (education) are part of the 'problem,' said Dennis Van Roekel, president of the National Education Association, describing the need to help every student succeed. "And they have to be part of the solution."
Hillsborough is not alone in focusing on teacher quality. A teacher evaluation being piloted in Pinellas schools calls for 30 percent to be tied to student performance.
By a two-to-one margin, parents in the St. Petersburg Times/BayNews9 poll said they didn't like the idea of paying teachers more based on standardized test scores alone. But some said they weren't completely opposed to merit pay.
Linda Shiflet, whose son is a senior at Blake High School in Tampa, said she once looked up the pay for two of her son's teachers — one who had less teaching experience but was known as a great teacher, and one who had served around 20 years but "didn't teach" according to her son.
"When I looked at that, I didn't think that was fair because I knew that my son was sitting in the higher paid teacher's classroom and doing nothing and going to the lower paid teacher's classroom and learning," she said.
Shiflet said she could support a system that used a combination of measures to determine teacher pay and said she was hopeful Hillsborough's Gates-backed reforms could help.
Sixty one percent of Hillsborough respondents said they considered it "very likely" or "somewhat likely" that Hillsborough's efforts would improve the performance of their child's teacher in the classroom. But 24 percent thought it "not at all likely" and 12 percent weren't sure.
While the jury is out for some parents, Obama's top education chief is convinced. "You're going to change the country," Duncan told Elia.
Times photographer Stephen J. Coddington contributed to this report. Tom Marshall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3400.