The observers filed quietly into the kindergarten classroom at Cannella Elementary School. A lesson was already in progress.
Four boys sat in a corner leafing through books as their teacher approached. This was summer school, open only to struggling readers. They needed some cutting-edge instruction to get back on track for first grade.
"Show me how you carefully turn the pages," the teacher told them, as two assistant principals and another teacher watched from the back of the room.
"Look! I found a word I know. I found 'the.' Anybody see a word you know?"
"I found 'like,' " said one boy.
"Look at the pictures," the teacher said, as she rose to leave the group. "I'm going to be checking to see if you read like good readers do."
On the surface, all looked well. The teacher spoke warmly and encouragingly to her students, and her classroom was well organized and bright. Under Hillsborough County's old teacher evaluation system, she might have gotten a positive rating.
But this summer, the district is launching a new initiative that could transform public education in Hillsborough and beyond.
And under that new system, it would soon become clear, this kindergarten teacher needed help.
• • •
Nearly an entire school year has passed since the Hillsborough school district became a laboratory for reform.
In November, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation awarded Hillsborough $100 million, the largest single education grant in its history, to revamp teacher evaluation and transform teachers.
Hillsborough won the grant, in large part, by vowing to change — and quickly. No longer will unqualified or ineffective teachers be granted tenure or allowed to remain in the classroom. No longer will great teachers go unrecognized.
Beginning this fall, officials told the foundation, they will launch a system to separate the best from the worst, reward them accordingly, and help struggling teachers succeed. They will find a way to put a high-performing teacher in every classroom. They will provide a national example.
It will be revolutionary change for a school system that — like most districts across America — tends to give just about every teacher a blue ribbon. In 2008 Hillsborough rated 99.5 percent of its 12,500 teachers as "satisfactory" or "outstanding," and one-third as perfect. Last year it fired one tenured teacher and denied tenure to 55.
Such change would be remarkable over a decade. But much of it will happen here in a single year.
In June, principals and their assistants — along with a corps of 120 peer evaluators and mentors drawn from the teaching ranks — gathered to learn a new evaluation system. They observed real teachers in action, both on videotape and in summer school classrooms, and practiced rating them.
When school starts later this month, they will fan out to observe, mentor and rate every teacher in the district. Their evaluations, along with student test scores, will help determine which teachers get tenure, promotions, or pink slips, and will eventually place them on a new salary scale.
And for students, it should feel like just another school year.
• • •
It was a typical, late-June morning in the school district's sleek, anonymous staff building on the edge of Ybor City.
Less than two weeks into summer vacation, casually dressed principals and peer evaluators had gathered to learn the new teacher evaluation system, amid coffee cups, name tags, and training manuals.
The video monitor flickered on. They were going to rate their first teacher.
"Don't be generous, call it like it is," warned Sarah Armstrong, a consultant with Cambridge Education America, an international training firm. "Sometimes it's going to be tough."
On the screen, a rookie teacher from California was starting a vocabulary lesson with middle school students who were learning English. He asked them to draw words from a hat, look them up in dictionaries if necessary, and turn them into a story.
The students giggled and looked at each other, not quite sure what to make of the assignment.
"You guys need to work together to make a little story," the teacher repeated. "Remember, all of these words are words we've had on vocabulary tests."
Some students floundered in looking up definitions, while others quickly finished the task. And their stories didn't focus much on the vocabulary; one was about getting drunk on beer and going to jail. The lesson was, at best, a mixed success.
Still, not all of the observers watching the video in Hillsborough drew the same conclusions. Fourteen marked the teacher "exemplary" or "accomplished" on the new, four-point scale, while 15 marked him "developing." None said his teaching "required action," the lowest grade.
One group of assistant principals said he was effective, based on what they saw — clear directions, thoughtful followup questions, and a nice manner.
And under the district's old evaluation system — in which principals did little more than tally teacher behaviors in broad categories like lesson planning, classroom management and instruction — they might have been right.
But under the new system, evaluators must do more than simply watch the teacher. They must scrutinize student behavior, quietly ask them about their studies, and figure out how much learning is taking place.
The whole system will fall apart if each evaluator has a different idea of what effective teaching looks like, warned Cambridge trainer George Wallace, a former British school director. Teachers need consistent standards, and evaluators must back up their judgments with specific examples of what they see in classrooms.
"I'm being a bit brutal here," he said. "But you're not going to tell a first-year teacher it's okay if it's not, are you?"
It was time to visit some real classrooms.
• • •
A week had passed. A young teacher at Bellamy Elementary School was in the middle of a third-grade reading lesson as the observers, carrying notebooks and pens, slipped in and grabbed seats along the wall.
The class had just read a storybook in a circle on the floor. Now they were headed to group tables to construct individual K-W-L charts: what they already knew about the topic, what they wanted to know, and what they had learned.
The teacher's questions were well-paced and clear, and her students were obedient and subdued as they settled in to work.
One hand went up, and she went over to help.
"What do you already know about wolves?" she asked the student.
Behind her, another student's hand went up, and then another. A boy put his head down on his desk.
Four minutes went by, and then five. The teacher still hadn't seen the two hands up, or the head down.
Finally she turned, saw them, and moved across the room in their direction. As she left the first table, students there began to chat quietly.
"In two minutes we're going to share all the facts you already know," the teacher announced.
Later, the evaluators tried to separate the good from the not-so-good.
The teacher had done a wonderful job of establishing routines, and she knew how to structure a reading lesson, they agreed. But she seemed poorly attuned to classroom dynamics, and hadn't matched the lesson to students' needs.
"One boy had his hand up forever," said peer evaluator Jill Brown. "I don't think she had her eye on the whole system."
Peer evaluator Dawn Grossman saw a missed opportunity; the teacher might have devised a lesson that encouraged students to work together, rather than putting them into groups and then trying to keep them quiet.
"There was no discussion in those little groups," Grossman said.
As evaluators, they were moving in the direction Hillsborough and the Gates Foundation wanted them to go. They were looking for evidence of learning in dynamic classrooms, not just "stand-and-deliver" teaching. And they had seen an opportunity to make a good teacher better. The new evaluation system was taking hold.
In other classrooms that week, the observers saw a mix of promise and problems.
One teacher raced through her agenda. Another showered her students with warmth and praise, and precisely calibrated her questions to students' abilities. But she failed to notice the students who orbited unproductively around the room while she taught small groups.
Even though it was just for practice, the teachers under observation were nervous. Everyone knew about the new evaluation system. Some might find out they weren't as good as they thought they were.
"Do any of you know how stressful it is for me at this moment, having five administrators watch me?" asked teacher Rosario Arce-Cuevas with a panicky smile, as her evaluators sat and took notes.
• • •
The observers had left the classroom at Cannella Elementary, where the rising kindergarteners were learning to read, and taken over a conference table in the school library. They looked slightly unnerved.
It was one thing to observe, but quite another thing to judge.
"I feel bad if my scores are going to make the difference for a teacher," said assistant principal Jackie Herinya, as she prepared to share her evaluation. "Now I'm second-guessing myself, wondering if I've been too harsh."
As an administrator, she had observed plenty of teachers.
But now the rules of the game were changing. It was no longer enough to say someone was a good teacher. You had to prove it.
Herinya said the teacher had established good classroom routines; when she told her students to clean up and be quiet, they did so quickly.
But the teacher's selection of materials was too advanced for beginning readers, and she hadn't found an effective way to get them engaged. Rather than being proactive, she was moving around the room in response to behavior problems.
"She seemed to almost be playing catchup, putting out fires as she went," Herinya said.
Her colleagues nodded in agreement, and Cambridge trainer Christopher Martes looked relieved. The evaluators were all on the same page.
"It was the weakest lesson we observed," said Martes, a superintendent from Massachusetts, reflecting on the best way to help the teacher improve. "If she doesn't own this, I'd be really troubled as an administrator."
As they compared notes, peer evaluator Chanel Taylor came to a realization: seeing teaching problems was only half the job. The real challenge was figuring out how to help teachers to assess their own work.
"How can you get them to see inside their lesson and see what needs improving?" she wondered.
In other conference rooms, veteran principals voiced anxieties, too. They wondered whether peer evaluators would judge teachers the same way. And they worried about the potential disruption of forcing teachers to change too much, too soon.
"You don't want to run people out of the profession who were never properly coached," said Allison Cline, principal at McKitrick Elementary in Lutz.
Still, she predicted teachers would quickly figure out the new system, learn from their mentors, and raise the level of their teaching.
"I can sell what I believe in," she said. "And I think this is going to be good."
But the reforms won't work unless principals change too, said Stephanie Woodford, who runs evaluation for the district's Gates project.
They'll need to restructure their work days, spending less time on the moment-to-moment dramas of running a school, and more time conferring with teachers, she said.
Sitting in the office answering phones won't get the job done.
"If a principal wants to move a school forward, the way you move forward is by moving your teachers forward and helping them grow," Woodford said. "But it's a big shift."
Tom Marshall can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3400.