TAMPA — One candidate came armed with two diplomas, and quickly snared an offer to teach in Hillsborough County schools. Another was back for a second try in the profession, after a frustrating first attempt led him to another field.
But it was more than just the possibility of a job that lured St. Petersburg residents Erin O'Brien and Rudy Morrow to last week's annual teacher recruitment fair in Tampa.
Both had choices — other districts, other jobs. They said the district's seven-year reform effort with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation drew them to Hillsborough like a magnet.
Morrow, 32, returned to the teaching profession for the mentors new teachers will get in Hillsborough under the reforms. O'Brien, 27, said she was attracted by the plan's focus on paying teachers according to their performance on evaluations. And she wasn't at all deterred by the fact that her own salary could plummet if she doesn't deliver.
"If you're doing all the right things, you want that evaluation," she said. "If you're not doing the right things, you shouldn't be a teacher."
District officials say their $100 million Gates grant also is helping them figure out which places — education schools, states, or even regions — produce their most effective teachers.
"Next year we're planning to target the areas where teachers have the best results in terms of their student progress," said recruitment supervisor Quincenia Bell. "It will definitely help us focus our efforts."
Already Hillsborough has found recruiting success in Michigan, Ohio and Indiana, where population has been shrinking and candidates are plentiful, she said.
Thanks to the Gates money, statistician James Goode will now work full time to analyze the performance of such new hires.
Then he'll tell some of the district's largest sources of new teachers, like the University of South Florida, how their graduates are doing on the job.
"Gates is certainly helping us to look at the data in a different way," he said. "It's a wakeup call to the schools of education."
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It was just a year ago that Hillsborough was putting the finishing touches on its Gates application. Project director David Steele said the district was caught off guard by a question from one consultant: Do you know where your most effective teachers come from? It had no idea.
Since then, the district has learned of groundbreaking research from Louisiana that might provide just what Hillsborough needs: hard evidence that some education schools are producing more effective teachers than others.
The study led by George Noell, a professor of psychology at Louisiana State University and A & M College, found that new teachers from some university programs there produce graduates who outperform even veteran teachers.
"Their candidates have a great deal of experience with children, and they're mentored by experienced teachers," said co-researcher Jeanne M. Burns, associate commissioner for teacher and leadership initiatives with the state Board of Regents.
Judging candidates' resumes won't get you very far, said Jonah Rockoff, an associate professor at Columbia Business School who studies the economics of education.
"Most research says it's extremely difficult to identify who's going to be an effective teacher based on credentials you can write down on paper," he said.
Some districts, including Hillsborough, use screening surveys, which have been shown to predict teacher success under certain conditions. In a recent study, a team led by Rockoff found such tools are more effective when combined with other data on applicants' subject-area knowledge and skills.
But he said districts also should reconsider how they treat new teachers. If rookies are thrown into the deep end without support, they might not last.
"Why give someone a full teaching load in their first year?" Rockoff asked. "Why is it that 95 percent of new teachers are given the same responsibilities as teachers who have been doing it for five or 10 years?"
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That's what happened to Rudy Morrow.
He struggled for five years at Lakewood Elementary School in St. Petersburg, where he began teaching as a green 22-year-old in 2001.
"Some days it was hard for me to leave that school," he recalled. "I really wanted those kids to succeed."
But he got little help in figuring out how to manage student behavior, plan lessons or connect them to state standards. Frustrated, he resigned and took a job in the financial services industry. And he reflected on what he'd gone through.
"I think it helped me understand how you need to become a professional and improve your craft," he said. "Much like a doctor learning new techniques."
Last week, Morrow was ready to try again, encouraged by Hillsborough's promise to provide each new teacher with a mentor. He wasn't unemployed and seeking any old job; he was married with a child and another on the way, and he wanted to teach.
He was among 1,000 teachers who interviewed in the district over three days to fill an estimated 600 openings. Officials say they hired around 150 teachers, and will likely pick up more over the summer.
Of a dozen candidates who spoke to the St. Petersburg Times, all said they had heard of the Gates reforms. A few said they worried about its new performance pay and evaluation systems.
Others, like former Pasco teacher Dennis McCartney, came to the Hillsborough fair after being laid off. He no longer sees teaching as a guaranteed job for life.
"They say teaching has security," he said. "I didn't feel that way when I was riffed out of my position."
Erin O'Brien, with degrees from the University of Tampa and Eckerd College, accepted a job offer with a magnet school.
And Rudy Morrow? On Wednesday he got an offer to teach at Cleveland Elementary, a low-income school in Tampa.
He grabbed it with both hands.
Tom Marshall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3400.