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Hillsborough close to winning $100 million Gates Foundation grant for merit pay and teacher effectiveness

TAMPA — For years, public schools have struggled to do things that good corporations long ago learned: find the best talent, measure their performance, and reward them accordingly.

Now the Hillsborough County school system stands on the verge of getting a $100 million boost from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to emulate that model.

The district — already a finalist in the foundation's latest, $500 million effort to remake U.S. public education by improving teacher effectiveness — was asked this week to submit a contract to carry out its proposal.

Officials say districts in Memphis, Omaha, and Pittsburgh received similar requests, along with a group of Los Angeles charter schools.

"We really see this as groundbreaking work to be done in education," said superintendent MaryEllen Elia. "And we want to be the ones doing it."

Under Hillsborough's plan, the district would create a new corps of around 200 trained master teachers to evaluate their peers, and coach them for career-long improvement.

Teachers would still have a chance to earn extra pay for boosting students' performance on standardized tests and getting good principal evaluations, as they do now. But under a new merit-pay program, those master teachers' ratings would comprise 30 percent of a teacher's evaluation.

The district would use some grant funds for "data dashboard" software and training to help teachers make sense of their students' performance.

It would focus intently on teachers during their first four years, with the goal of helping identify and weed out those who don't deserve tenure.

And high-performing teachers would get the chance to leap ahead of their peers on the salary scale when they earn tenure. A fourth-year teacher could jump to the 11th rung or even higher.

All of those provisions would have to be formally negotiated through the district's collective bargaining process, said Jean Clements, president of the Hills­borough Classroom Teachers Association.

The new pay-for-performance system would be optional, and the union would make sure money wasn't taken away from senior teachers or those who opt out, she said. But it would address a long-standing frustration among new teachers and education reformers, who complain that decent paychecks are based less on results than seniority.

"Why take 20 years to get to the top? Why can't I get there sooner?" Clements said. "New teachers would have the likelihood of earning much more money than they do now."

Officials described a rigorous, five-month process that brought the district to the final round in the Gates competition.

Hillsborough teams presented their plans three times in Atlanta, Chicago and Seattle, with the foundation paying all expenses. Gates also paid for the district to hire a management consulting firm, Boston Consulting Group, to develop its proposal.

The consultants ran focus community groups, asked tough questions, and helped the district learn a few things about itself.

No one knew, for example, that 60 percent of the district's lowest-performing students on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test attend schools that have earned a state grade of A or B.

And no one knew basic questions about the district's best-performing teachers, like what they majored in or which colleges produced them.

The stakes are high for the Gates Foundation, which last year conceded that one of its flagship efforts — a $2 billion effort to create "small schools" at the high school level — had come up short.

The new effort focuses on teacher training, development and retention, with a particular emphasis on low-income and minority students aiming for college or a decent career.

Elia said the sprawling Hillsborough district — with nearly 190,000 students spread across an urban and rural county, and many venturing into Advanced Placement classes — is a perfect fit.

"We all agree, the way to get there is to get the right person in the front of the classroom every day," she said.

Tom Marshall can be reached at tmarshall@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3400.

Hillsborough close to winning $100 million Gates Foundation grant for merit pay and teacher effectiveness 08/19/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, August 19, 2009 11:59pm]
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