TAMPA — It started with a simple idea from one of the world's most successful entrepreneurs: To improve education, focus intensely on teachers.
Tens of millions of dollars later, the Hillsborough County School District is midway through a grand attempt to raise the performance of its 14,000 teachers.
A seven-year grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation — $100 million, to be matched by the district — is paying for a ground-breaking teacher evaluation system, new mentors to help rookie teachers and technical expertise to analyze student test scores.
Will it work?
Three years into the initiative, and with mixed success so far, the answer is unclear.
The mentors have slowed the tide of young teachers leaving the profession. And Hillsborough is ahead of many districts in making teacher evaluations more meaningful.
But some teachers have pushed back against some changes, including "peer evaluations" by colleagues who are sometimes younger and less experienced.
In addition, changes in education reform have rendered some of the program's original goals obsolete. Among them: problems with high-stakes testing and a softening by reformers who once spoke of firing large numbers of teachers.
One of the bolder predictions in Hillsborough — that hundreds of teachers would be deemed inept and fired — never came to pass.
While the district and teacher's union stand by the Gates initiative, known as Empowering Effective Teachers or EET, the landscape is different than when officials launched it in 2009.
That's to be expected, some say.
"This is an experiment," said Stephanie Baxter-Jenkins, executive director of the Hillsborough Classroom Teachers Association.
"I think we're in a better position than the state for a lot of reasons. That doesn't mean ours is perfect, or that we won't think about things and ask questions and find ways to do it better."
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District and union officials say they went after the grant with the best intentions.
Public opinion had soured on the education system. It was widely believed the state would crack down on teachers and their unions — and hard.
Rather than wait for state mandates, Hillsborough leaders drew up their own proposal for change.
Graduation rates would rise, the document said. Teacher evaluations, widely considered a joke, would provide meaningful feedback and assessment.
In what is now widely discounted as fantasy, the authors said the district would fire 5 percent of its tenured teachers every year for poor performance.
"All of us knew that would never happen," union president Jean Clements now says.
David Steele, Hillsborough's chief technology officer and EET director, said the prediction was based on assumptions — later discredited — that up to 20 percent of teachers are ineffective.
Almost immediately, district and union officials denounced the idea of mass firings. As year two ended, the number of teachers facing termination added up to well under 1 percent. The process improved many teachers, officials said. Others left voluntarily or retired early, and no one objected.
"There's a huge difference in what is in the proposal and what is actually funded," said Gates spokeswoman Debbie Veney Robinson. "Any number of things can change on the ground, in public policy, in leadership, and you have to focus on the overall goals."
Robinson and Clements both acknowledged thinking among reformers has shifted in recent years. The mantra "you can't fire your way to success" came into vogue during the downfall of Washington, D.C., chancellor Michelle Rhee.
Regardless of what was written in 2009, both said the goal was always to help teachers.
"It never set out to be a punitive thing," Robinson said.
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One feature that set EET apart was the use of peer evaluations as 25 percent of a teacher's score.
Getting used to the process wasn't easy.
The evaluators had no experience in the job, Clements said. Teachers were unfamiliar with the process and they were not accustomed to being rated by their colleagues.
Some rebelled. One tried to unseat Clements as union president. The district rolled out more training for peers, including sessions that fine-tuned their communication skills. After learning teachers did not like the label "developing," the district made it "progressing."
Beyond the mechanics, there was a need to rethink the entire notion of an evaluation, said superintendent MaryEllen Elia.
"People had to understand that the feedback would give them what they considered a lower score, but they have to be able to accept, 'I can get better,' " she said.
The district had an easier time with factoring student growth into teacher evaluations, a concept known as "value-added."
Other districts scrambled after the Legislature mandated value-added for half the evaluation. If students in a class or grade did not take a Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, the system uses a schoolwide value-added score instead — a decision many teachers criticized as unfair.
But Hillsborough has used multiple assessments and end-of-course exams since the 1980s, negating the need to use schoolwide scores.
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While teachers appear to be adjusting, time will tell whether students learn more as a result.
The Gates proposal talked of raising the high school graduation rate from 80 to 90 percent. But changing guidelines in measuring graduation rates will make that comparison difficult. Similarly, FCAT scores defy comparison as the tests and scoring guidelines have grown tougher.
Elia said when she talks to principals, "they all, to a one, say there is a difference in what is happening in the classroom." Teachers collaborate more, she said. Teaching is student-focused, as the evaluations focus intently on the student response.
But Pamela Allison, a Robinson High School math teacher with 33 years' experience, said teachers have always collaborated. Teaching has always been student-centered "because we are all about the students."
To a large extent, teachers have resigned themselves to EET, she said. "Morale was low last year and it continues to be low.
"A lot of teachers are saying, 'whatever.' Some have ceased to care as much about their evaluations, and I think that's sad. We're becoming jaded. I'm not really getting feedback that's helping me.''
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Circumstances and experience have led the district to retreat from some of its early Gates plans.
There was discussion of an urban teaching residency program in partnership with a nonprofit organization. The district decided its own mentoring program would be more effective, and it ended up surpassing expectations.
The mentors for new teachers are especially popular. Since 2009, retention among first-year teachers has risen from 72 to 94 percent, Steele said.
But for seasoned teachers, the Gates initiative has taken longer to deliver benefits, union leaders said. The district is making training more available to teachers. But time is always an issue. "They are teaching bell to bell in an eight-hour day," Clements said.
Surveys to pinpoint teachers' attitudes have been cut back for the same reason.
And when teachers complain about EET, Clements found they also are frustrated by other issues at their schools including discipline and time spent on testing.
"It becomes a whole lot of other things than the evaluator who's coming into their classroom."
Marlene Sokol can be reached at (813) 226-3356 or [email protected]