PLANT CITY — In the fall of 1978, an eager young man went to work teaching math at his alma mater, Plant City High.
Fresh out of the University of Florida, David Steele saw something promising in the endeavor: a chance to inspire others, help them catch fire.
But one thing bothered him. School systems didn't seem to be trying to identify superb teachers, let alone those who coasted or taught badly. Either way, you earned your raise and climbed the salary schedule toward a comfortable retirement.
"It used to be on your evaluation, the highest you could get was satisfactory," he recalled.
Now, Steele can change all that as the point person on Hillsborough School district's $202 million partnership with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. When questions arise about the new system that will rate each of the district's 12,500 teachers this fall — and eventually determine who gets a pay raise, promotion or termination — all eyes turn to Steele.
"None of us would ever have thought we'd be doing something this important even three years ago," said Steele, 54. "I don't think we envisioned reshaping the district the way we're going to reshape it."
It's no coincidence that the project director for the high-profile, seven-year effort is a numbers man whose career has led him from the classroom to principal to chief information and technology officer for the school district.
Gathering data on student and teacher performance will make it easier for the district to deny tenure to weak beginning teachers or fire low-performing veterans, a concept Bill Gates himself has backed.
"We need to give all teachers the benefit of clear standards, sound curriculum, good training and top instructional tools," the Microsoft founder 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."
Last year Hillsborough fired just one tenured teacher and denied tenure to 55, and officials told the foundation that its weak evaluation system was largely to blame.
But Steele says the data will also help good teachers to improve. Such information would have helped him run better schools as a principal, he said.
"We want to say you are the top of the heap as a teacher, and we want to recognize that," Steele said. "This is the opportunity to really do the things that always should have been done."
Last week Steele visited Bryan Elementary School in his hometown for the latest in a series of presentations that he and four lieutenants have conducted on the reforms.
"I won't leave until the last question is answered," he said.
One by one, teachers' hands went up. And they didn't mince words.
"We can't earn less than we do now, right?" one asked.
Actually, Steele said, it would be possible for teachers' pay to drop if their performance slipped for three straight years. That's one of the reasons why veteran teachers can opt out of the new, merit-based pay system that will be unveiled beginning in 2013.
He prefers to emphasize the benefits, particularly for the 50 percent of Hillsborough teachers with less than eight years' experience.
"It gives young teachers the opportunity to make more money earlier," he told the group. And the reforms create new roles for teachers who want to try their hand at curriculum, administration or mentoring.
But some teachers voiced worries about the new corps of peer evaluators — complete strangers — who will enter their classrooms this fall to rate them, along their regular principal evaluation.
And if 40 percent of teachers' evaluations are based on student growth under the new system, what happens to the teacher of an autistic child who can't take tests at all?
"Isn't it lumping all children together to assume they're all capable of one year of growth?" one Bryan educator asked. "How are we protecting the teacher?"
Steele assured her that the district would find fair ways to measure every teacher based on their job and their students' capabilities.
"When I was a teacher, I taught students to be reliable, I taught them to be honest, I taught them to be on time," he recalled. "Those things are hard to measure. But if we can't accurately measure student performance, we have a problem."
The district will soon be hiring a consultant to measure the year-to-year, "value-added" contribution every teacher makes for every student, from the guidance office to the auto mechanics shop.
"We need formulas for every teacher of every subject," Steele said.
Sometimes the math gets a little tough, admitted Tracye Brown, who serves as the project's communications director. So the team sits him down and says, "Explain it to us."
Then she takes that message on the road to schools, along with assessment director Anna Brown, mentoring director Jamalya Jackson and evaluation director Stephanie Woodford.
"I think more than anything, we don't want anyone to not know what's going on," Tracye Brown said, referring to their school presentations. "We want teacher input, we want it so desperately."
Steele views the seven-year task of guiding the Gates grant as the culmination of more than 30 years working in Hillsborough schools — a math teacher's legacy.
"This is what I wanted for my last big job," he said.
Tom Marshall can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3400.