Saturday, April 21, 2018
Education

Hillsborough School Board member Stacy White blasts Gates initiative

TAMPA — Stacy White sat politely through nearly two hours of discussion about the Gates-funded teacher evaluation project.

Then he stopped being polite.

"We have two entities running this school district," said the newest member of the Hillsborough County School Board. "And that's the Gates Foundation and College Board."

It was the most blistering attack to date by a sitting School Board member on a multimillion dollar project that placed the district at the vanguard of Florida's education reform efforts and boosted the profile of superintendent MaryEllen Elia.

White painted the process, which rests partly on peer evaluations, as experimental, demoralizing and stifling of the art of teaching.

His remarks followed far gentler criticisms by members Candy Olson and April Griffin, who said some teachers are uncomfortable with the process and the feedback they're getting.

Even Bill Gates is speaking out against the public ranking of teachers, Olson said.

Griffin said some teachers are offended by corrective letters from the district. Some are confused about how to implement required curricula, such as the College Board's SpringBoard, and still earn high marks under Empowering Effective Teachers.

And, while mentors in the program tend to be empathetic, some evaluators put teachers on edge. "The peer evaluators need to be more like mentors in their attitude when they walk in," Griffin said.

Despite these observations, board members generally expressed support for the initiative and vowed to keep reminding teachers that it is far better than the reform system in place for the rest of the state.

Not White, who said the job of evaluating teachers should fall to the principals.

"Teachers, as members of the creative class … can disagree with what needs to be implemented and still be correct," he said.

"Teaching is a process that culminates after an entire year of hard work and creativity on the teacher's part. And our teachers feel oftentimes, and some administrators, for that matter, that what they have is Big Brother coming into the classroom to watch over them."

White, a pharmacist and father of three in east Hillsborough, said he wonders how the district will pay for Empowering Effective Teachers once the grant money runs out; and that he's been told rank-and-file teachers see evaluators as "the man or woman in the black hat." He said a climate of fear stops teachers from voicing their misgivings.

The district is receiving $100 million from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to help pay for the project. Elia pointed out that before the project, most teachers received the highest possible ratings — regardless of how much their students were learning.

"This is about our students. It's about student achievement," she said, adding that such achievement is only possible with quality teachers.

Speaking after the meeting, Hillsborough Classroom Teachers Association president Jean Clements took issue with several of White's points.

She disagreed with his assertion that evaluations are best left to principals.

"For decades, there was a strong argument among many teachers and principals that principals did not necessarily have all the qualifications they needed to best support and help their teachers," she said.

Clements also disagreed that teachers are afraid to speak out.

"I probably have thousands of conversations with teachers each year," she said. "Many tell me they share their concerns at their school sites." While some fear of retribution exists, she said, "I don't think it's the rule."

School officials have consistently described the Gates project as a seven-year work in progress.

Among the steps described Tuesday: The district will poll teachers on several issues, including a term to replace the label of "developing."

They also are stepping up training in how to reconcile the observation rubric with other curricula, such as that from the College Board and Scholastic.

Clements and union executive director Stephanie Baxter-Jenkins said they appreciate the training, but they'd like it better if teachers were paid for the time.

Marlene Sokol can be reached at (813) 226-3356 or [email protected]

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