TAMPA — Hillsborough teachers are sharply divided about the district's nationally watched experiment with the Gates Foundation to boost teacher performance and toughen up how they are evaluated and rewarded.
In a survey conducted last month, fewer than 35 percent of teachers thought the $100 million grant has had a positive impact on the district, had seen positive results firsthand or believed it will be a good thing for them or their school.
In fact, more than two-thirds of respondents didn't think it has had a positive effect or were simply unsure. The numbers provide a rare overview of teacher attitudes at the close of the first year of the seven-year effort funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
The good news for the district: Over time, more teachers said they personally felt positive results, according to the anonymous survey, the fourth in a series.
Hillsborough superintendent MaryEllen Elia said this week she was encouraged by that strong growth — a 20-point jump since the first survey in February 2010. But she acknowledged that plenty of hurdles remain as the district moves toward a system where performance, rather than seniority, will eventually determine pay and job success for teachers.
"As we go, we'll say, 'Did we do right, and do we have to make any changes?' " Elia said. "I am accepting of the fact that there can be problems."
About 3,000 out of the district's 12,500 teachers chose to respond to the final survey conducted June 10, and a margin of error was not available.
Teachers union officials said they hadn't seen the survey numbers but weren't surprised by them. Many teachers are reserving judgment until all student test scores that factor into their evaluations are calculated this fall, said Stephanie Baxter-Jenkins, executive director of the Hillsborough Classroom Teachers Association.
"The majority of people I know won't say a lot about it until they see what the scores say," she added.
The four surveys were conducted during a period that spanned Hillsborough's experience with the reform effort. The first, in February 2010, came just months after the district won its grant, while the last was conducted June 10 — before teachers saw any of their final ratings under a new peer evaluation system.
That means the next survey could show more teacher unhappiness if, as expected, the majority of their evaluations drop under the tougher new system.
Officials say the timing of the latest survey, on the last day of school, was unavoidable since teachers would be less available to respond over the summer.
Many of the survey questions focused on teacher awareness of the Gates reforms, and the district's communications office used them as a measure of their success at informing teachers about the process.
In February 2010, just 55.4 percent of teachers said they understood the objectives of the Gates grant. By June, that figure had risen to 83 percent. Seventy-four percent of teachers said they had received "enough information" on the process last month, up 31 points from the first survey.
But the questions about the Gates grant's impact on teachers and their schools showed far more volatility. In the first survey, more than 32 percent of teachers agreed that the reforms would be "a good thing for me and my school." Three months later that figure jumped to 40 percent, before declining to 34 percent last month.
"The results indicate a need for further discussions with our membership so that if there are problem areas, we can work to address their concerns," said Baxter-Jenkins.
Elia said the district has been making adjustments to the evaluation system in response to feedback from administrators, peer evaluators and teachers.
For example, some teachers "didn't like some of the phrases" on the evaluation criteria, Elia said, finding them unclear.
Aron Zions, a teacher at Pierce Middle School and a union representative, said many teachers were dismayed by a term on the evaluation sheet — "developing." It signifies that teachers are just one notch above the bottom rating, "requires action."
Many were shocked to receive such scores after years in a system where the vast majority of teachers were rated satisfactory or outstanding.
"The teacher who wants to be perfect, at some point you have to tell him, relax," Zions said.
Principals are under pressure, too, since they must raise standards in a single year. Teachers whom they once rated perfect, or nearly so, are now hearing that they have room for improvement. And not all principals are proving equally adept at making that adjustment, Elia said.
"We're definitely looking at principal evaluations as well," she said, citing research on the importance of school leadership in teacher improvement.