In a potentially groundbreaking move, the Pinellas school district is proposing to find out which teachers are having the most success with black students — and trying to replicate their behaviors and strategies.
"If we know what's working, then we can help spread that to more teachers," said associate superintendent Bill Lawrence.
Education reforms tied to teacher quality are all the rage. But teacher quality experts praised the Pinellas project as bold, if not unheard of.
"The idea of finding out empirically which teachers are being successful with black students and then observing them is a good one and quite unique," University of Washington professor Dan Goldhaber wrote in an e-mail.
The plan at this point, district officials said, is to identify the teachers or teams of teachers that are seeing the biggest gains in test scores among black students, and figure out what they're doing to get those gains. Researchers will share their findings with other teachers through training.
"This is HUGE," wrote David Figlio, a Northwestern University researcher who will be participating in the Pinellas effort, in an e-mail. "Pinellas schools will be a model for large urban school systems everywhere."
The latest details are a departure from plans announced in the spring by superintendent Julie Janssen.
After St. Petersburg Times analysis in April found black students in Pinellas are falling further behind black students in Florida's other big districts, Janssen initially proposed hiring Figlio to find out why. But the issue fell off the radar as Janssen focused on other priorities, including an ultimately unsuccessful effort to save her job. Her last day was Friday.
Janssen, though, stuck by a commitment to put the effort back on track.
Last week, two days after being fired, she attended a meeting with Figlio; University of Florida professor Bernard Oliver; Don Pemberton, director of UF's Lastinger Center for Learning; and top district staffers.
It was there, Lawrence said, that the district shifted the research focus away from what went wrong.
"I don't have time to figure out why" black students are struggling more in Pinellas, Lawrence said. "I want to find out what works and replicate it."
But not everyone is convinced.
Watson Haynes, president of an influential community group that advocates for black students in Pinellas, said the district already has examples of efforts that have boosted black students. He said it can't afford to wait for research that may take years to implement and test.
"We've seen F schools go to C and B schools," he said. "Find out from them, what's that magic you got going on over there?"
The Times analysis showed that from 2005 and 2010, the divide between black students in Pinellas and black students statewide increased in every grade on the reading and math portions of the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test.
In terms of percentage points, the gap has now widened to double digits in five of eight grades tested for reading and in every grade tested for math.
Goldhaber, the University of Washington researcher, said it makes sense for Pinellas to focus on individual teachers because research shows the variation in learning gains tends to be much larger within schools than between schools.
He offered one, quick caveat: "Once effective teachers are identified, you would want to observe both them AND a comparison group of teachers so as not to potentially jump to the wrong conclusion about what it was about their teaching practices that lead to success," he wrote.
Kate Walsh, president of the National Council on Teacher Quality, also gave Pinellas a tentative thumbs up. "Certainly it is smart because I think districts have a huge tendency to make decisions based on assumptions," she wrote in an e-mail.
Many districts, for example, respond to achievement gaps by assigning more black students to black teachers, even though the research does not support such a blanket move, she said.
Walsh also offered a caveat: "The only downside I can see is that it may well be that the very best teachers with black kids could be even more effective if other changes were made — such as in curriculum," she wrote. "So you would want to make sure you listen carefully to those teachers about what they think works and give them the ability to be as effective as possible."
Figlio and Oliver are expected to submit more concrete plans in the next few weeks. That information will be forwarded to the Lastinger Center, which has secured a commitment from the Kellogg Foundation to fund the effort.
The cost remains unclear. But Janssen said in May the district would not be picking up the tab.
Ron Matus can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8873.