TAMPA — Imagine radically reinventing America's teaching force.
You could lure new talent with competitive pay and support. Give teachers the power to evaluate each other's work. Reward those who perform and fire those who don't.
It could spark a seismic change in the nation's schools or prompt a backlash that alters nothing.
With a little luck, the Hillsborough County Public Schools will soon embark on a seven year, $202 million journey to find out. The district would join a national effort to improve teacher effectiveness, the one factor experts say makes the biggest difference in a student's success or failure.
Officials worry about cost overruns, dissension from teachers and their union, and other glitches that have doomed similar efforts across the nation. But success would create a generation of great teachers and bolster the district's reputation as a laboratory for educational reform.
"The ultimate effect of it is certainly bigger than Hillsborough," said superintendent MaryEllen Elia. "Teachers and the work they do with students every day is what makes the difference. The goal is to make a lot more students college- and career-ready when they leave high school."
To make it happen, the district needs just one thing: a phone call from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation saying it has won a $100 million grant.
It was no accident that put Hillsborough on the foundation's short list for a share of $500 million in teacher improvement funds.
For years, the district has forged ahead on prickly issues like student testing, performance pay for teachers and college preparation for low-income students.
"Hillsborough is enormously influential on the national stage," said Michael Casserly, executive director of the Washington-based Council of Great City Schools, citing the district's long experience with merit pay.
"What is noteworthy on Hillsborough's part is that they're trying it. And none of us across the country will know what its effects are unless there are people who are courageous enough to take a step forward and see how it works."
So as the foundation launched an ambitious, $1 billion education reform effort, it invited Hillsborough to apply.
Gates officials say they aim to measure student performance, identify the qualities of effective teachers and find ways to put more of them in the classroom. Their long-term goal: create model programs to ensure that 80 percent of America's high school graduates are prepared for college.
"We need to give all teachers the benefit of clear standards, sound curriculum, good training and top instructional tools," co-chairman Bill Gates told a national audience in late 2008. "But if their students still keep falling behind, they're in the wrong line of work, and they need to get another job."
The foundation plans to spend $500 million on three to five districts, turning them into laboratories on raising and rewarding good teachers.
Hillsborough has sought $100 million, and would match it with $102 million in district funds or other grants. Other districts on the foundation's short list include Memphis, Omaha, Pittsburgh and a group of Los Angeles charter schools.
In preparing its application, Hillsborough launched an intensive self-study, with focus groups and consultants focusing intently on successes and failures.
The high-flying district discovered some hard truths.
Hillsborough officials told the foundation that their system for evaluating teachers was broken. Just 0.6 percent of teachers were rated unsatisfactory or needing improvement in 2008. And underperforming teachers were gaining tenure.
District officials were also surprised to learn that 60 percent of their lowest-performing students attended a school rated A or B in the state's grading system.
"Today, by our best estimates, just 37 percent of our students graduate college-ready," the district said.
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To fix those problems, Hillsborough officials pledge to remake their entire teacher evaluation and compensation system.
Where new teachers had previously been dropped into classrooms to sink or swim, they would now be supported by full-time mentors. High performers would earn tenure within three years, or get a fourth year to prove their worth. Those who didn't would be dismissed.
Teachers further along in seniority could keep their existing pay scale. But high-achieving younger teachers could vault past their elders, jumping to the 11th rung or even higher on the salary scale.
"I've been a teacher for 39 years of my life," Elia said. "I believe that's a very good, worthwhile career for people to have. But unfortunately that's not the case for a lot of young people."
A new corps of 200 trained peer evaluators would be responsible for 30 percent of each teacher's performance review, while the principal would contribute another 30 percent. Student achievement on tests or other measures would make up the remaining 40 percent. And for the first time, teachers would be evaluated on a three-year average of student scores, rather than a single year.
Teachers in a district focus group said they were initially taken aback by the scope of proposed changes.
"I've heard people say the mentor piece is really the piece that rubs them wrong," said James Gibbs, coordinator of a student support program at Burns Middle School. "They really don't want someone in their class telling them how to teach."
But he supports the plan and said few teachers or principals were likely to miss the existing evaluation system.
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Even before a decision on the Gates money, some reforms are moving forward.
Already the district has awarded a $59,100 contract to expert Charlotte Danielson to rewrite its teacher evaluation system.
The human resources office is creating a new team of midlevel managers to help principals cope with their enlarged teacher evaluation responsibilities, as well as the possibility of larger numbers of dismissals.
"I don't envision a whole lot more teachers not getting tenure," said chief information officer David Steele. "(But) I hope they get the correct message. Underperforming teachers hurt all of us."
Many of the changes would have to be negotiated with the teachers' union.
Jean Clements, president of the Hillsborough Classroom Teachers' Association, said she was initially skeptical of what she saw as the Gates Foundation's efforts to "force a corporate model into the school sector."
Now, after months of meetings with Gates staff, she sees the foundation as a compassionate force in education.
"We're not moving into this blindly," Clements said. "We have our own concerns, but they're not great enough to make us get scared and go home. We feel there's way too much to be gained."
Giunta Middle School teacher Barbara Miraglia said she likes the idea of being rewarded for strong performance. And the new mentoring system will help many teachers, especially those new to the profession.
"It gives that basic feedback that teachers are needing," she said. "Often they're getting just snapshots."
Other reforms, like the new performance pay system, can't move forward without the Gates grant or other funding sources.
The district has pledged $102 million of its own money toward the effort. Some funds would be redirected from within the budget, while other money would likely come from private or federal grants like the competitive "Race to the Top" stimulus fund.
Still, officials say it's possible the project could run into funding problems after the Gates money ran out. The district has budgeted $32.5 million per year, but having an open-ended merit pay system makes predictions tough.
"Is there worry and concern?" asked Steele. "Of course. But if we break the bank, it will be because our students start blowing the roof off in achievement, and that's the whole idea."
Times staff writer Jeffrey Solochek contributed to this report. Tom Marshall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3400.