Hillsborough's Gates Foundation-backed teacher evaluation system loses support

Educators' complaints and a lawsuit taint the Gates Foundation-backed system.
Jean Clements, president of the Classroom Teachers Association, says many teachers feel the process is demeaning and unfair.
Jean Clements, president of the Classroom Teachers Association, says many teachers feel the process is demeaning and unfair.
Published January 6 2015
Updated January 7 2015

TAMPA — From School Board members to the teachers union leadership, everyone seemed on board with Hillsborough County's teacher evaluation system when it was launched in 2010.

The district promised new teacher mentors, expertly crafted evaluations and scientifically calibrated test score reports. Overall, it was hailed as far superior to the system the state imposed in 2011. And the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation backed it with millions of dollars.

But after teacher complaints and a pending lawsuit, some board members have grown disenchanted with Empowering Effective Teachers. And Jean Clements, the union's longtime president, is no longer singing EET's praises.

"What should be a concern to every person in this room is that, for too many teachers, the evaluation process feels demeaning or unfair, even with teachers who fare really well in this evaluation process," Clements said during a day of School Board workshops Tuesday.

Unlike in the early days, when teachers collaborated in every aspect of the program, she said, "we've really fallen down as a district in terms of continuing that conversation."

Marie Whelan, the district official who administers the program, acknowledged "the new evaluation system has taken folks out of their comfort zone." But she said it provides a far more timely and accurate picture of teacher performance, which used to be measured yearly and required only one observation every three years.

Data based on student test scores — which counts for 40 percent of a teacher's score, compared with 50 percent in the rest of the state — is adjusted for student characteristics such as learning disabilities, limited English fluency and past performance.

"Each teacher's classroom is like a fruit basket," said Tracy Schatzberg, director of assessments. "Everybody is different."

Classroom observations correlate strongly with test data, suggesting the evaluations are valid indications of how much the children are learning, she said.

But board member April Griffin called for the workshop after being advised at a teacher termination hearing that state law requires the district to fire a teacher with two unsatisfactory ratings, even though teachers cannot contest them.

Administrators point out that there has never been a way to contest evaluations. And they spent much of the day detailing steps they take to make sure teachers get support after their first unsatisfactory rating. District officials check in with principals to make sure teachers have assistance plans. And, instead of dictating the plans, the principals allow teachers to design them and select members of their assistance teams.

"We've made some huge strides in what we offer teachers," said chief human resources officer Stephanie Woodford.

The thinking behind EET was that all students need good teachers, and superintendent MaryEllen Elia drove home that point when board members spoke of the hardship on employees. "It is the children in front of those teachers every day who we have a huge responsibility for," Elia said.

Lawyers debated how strict the law is about when a teacher must be fired. Stephanie Baxter-Jenkins, the union's executive director, said it's important to find ways to prevent teachers from being fired unfairly, even if it means tweaking the process. Four firings are on hold as the district awaits the outcome of a lawsuit filed by fired teacher Mary Borne.

Griffin said there should be more workshops, perhaps in the evenings so teachers can attend. Until morale improves, she said, "I'm not going to be happy and I'm not going to shut up."

Contact Marlene Sokol at (813) 226-3356 or msokol@tampabay.com. Follow @marlenesokol.

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