TAMPA — After years of training and explaining, celebrating and anticipating, Hillsborough County schoolteachers are about to see where they stand.
The final scores will be delivered any day now, completing the first evaluations under the nationally watched Gates system.
Empowering Effective Teachers, as the program is formally called, replaces simple principal evaluations with a complex set of assessments that ultimately will determine teachers' pay.
The idea is to make proficiency more important than seniority. But school leaders are venturing into uncharted territory as they release the first scores.
"I think there is a lot of anxiety," said Hillsborough Classroom Teacher Association president Jean Clements, who worked closely with the administration in designing the system.
"It's like report card day, but on a whole new level."
Already, teachers know how they scored on their evaluations by principals and peers. And they know that on the so-called written portion, they are far less likely to receive perfect scores than in the old days.
Last year, under the old evaluation system, 30 percent of the district's roughly 11,000 teachers got a perfect score and were all clumped together, said David Steele, Hillsborough's Gates project director.
This time, only two teachers earned perfect scores in the written evaluations. "To reward your highest performers, you need to be able to separate all of those who previously were getting the same score," Steele said.
The final result teachers will be given in the coming days is based largely on student test scores.
Statisticians at the University of Wisconsin, which specializes in this type of analysis, are comparing students to similar students in measuring their gains. They are considering, for example, whether a student is a non-native English speaker, whether he is older than his classmates, and what his performance was like in prior years.
That's why, even though teachers already know how their students scored on pre-tests and post-tests, Steele said it is virtually impossible for them to predict their scores.
"You want to be as transparent as you possibly can be, but you have this line between transparency and accuracy," he said.
"And, unfortunately, if you wanted to take a student score and figure out how that converted to a teacher's score, you would need a Ph.D. in mathematics to be able to do it."
Hillsborough, in securing a $100 million grant in 2009 from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, placed itself at the forefront of a statewide move toward teacher accountability. Where other districts are now mandated by law to devise new evaluation systems that disregard seniority, Hillsborough enjoys a degree of autonomy because of Gates.
District officials have seven years to refine the process and study its effectiveness. They'll collect two full years of data before dividing teachers into categories based on their scores. And they'll collect three years of data before using it to determine pay.
Even then, Clements said, "We're never done. We won't find the perfect model."
As hard as the process might be for some teachers, she contends it's a vast improvement over the old one. "It was more like compiling a checklist," she said. "You got to bank points for being acceptable."
Since the system was revised, she said, she has heard from veteran teachers who now brainstorm with one another about their lesson plans.
"This is something that is surprising and amazing them," Clements said. "For the first time in their entire career, they are seeing teachers talk to each other about their practice."
Marlene Sokol can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3356.