The fate of a proposed research study of black student achievement in Pinellas County is again unclear.
Interim superintendent John Stewart told School Board members at a workshop last week that he wanted to "go slowly" with a proposal involving black students and teacher effectiveness that crystallized during the final days of former superintendent Julie Janssen's tenure.
"I think the only approach to this is to put a toe into the water, not dive in," Stewart said. "I am a question asker. We are going to ask a lot of questions."
The idea of a study was sparked in April after a St. Petersburg Times analysis found that black students in Pinellas were falling further behind the state average for black students in both reading and math, and were dead last, in every grade, compared with black students in the state's 12 biggest urban districts.
Janssen initially proposed hiring Northwestern University professor David Figlio to take a closer look at the data and try to offer explanations. But leaders of a community group that advocates for black students objected. And a proposed contract was twice pulled from consideration by the School Board.
In late August, after a meeting that included Janssen, Figlio and officials with the University of Florida's Lastinger Center, a new proposal emerged: Identify the teachers or teams of teachers seeing the biggest gains among black students, figure out what they're doing to get those gains, and then share those methods with other teachers.
Lastinger officials said they secured a commitment from the Kellogg Foundation to pay for the effort. Meanwhile, a couple of nationally known teacher quality experts said the Pinellas plan was potentially groundbreaking.
Stewart told board members that he had only skimmed the proposal, which was submitted in writing this month. "Yes, there is potential here," he said, "but I want to go slowly with it and run it through different channels."
Tuesday's workshop marked the first time board members weighed in. Some also urged caution.
"I don't want to put down this whole proposal," said board member Linda Lerner, but "don't we know who the good teachers are? To spend all this money …''
"This frustrates me," colleague Lew Williams responded, "to hear this referred to as 'spending all this money' … We should be focused on closing the achievement gap. I could care less how much it costs."
Board chair Carol Cook encouraged other members to take a closer look. She referred to a monthslong debate this year over the district's teacher training partnership with Lastinger.
"I get the sense that as soon as 'Lastinger' is said, it's a dirty word," Cook said. "I'm willing to say, let's put our toe in the water. I want us to do it (with) an open mind."