LITHIA — Sitting at the Burger King across the street from Newsome High School, Joseph Thomas knew his job was on the line.
It was Wednesday, the day Bill and Melinda Gates were in town. Thomas, 43, was ready to discuss why he was rejecting his peer evaluator under a new system funded by the Gates' foundation.
A social studies teacher through-and-through, Thomas considered what his students might learn if he went down for taking a stand. "It's civil disobedience, that's what it is," he said.
The district called it insubordination and suspended him with pay.
Thomas, upset that his evaluator comes from an elementary school background, is unusual in that he is speaking out against a process that is radically changing the way the district treats its teachers.
In another departure from the norm, a school board member last week delivered a harsh assessment of Empowering Effective Teachers, saying it demoralizes school employees.
For Thomas, a father of two married to an elementary school teacher, this is new territory. Usually his biggest concern is how to get 14-year-olds excited about Congress, politics and the Supreme Court.
His last Gates rating was about average. He has no disciplinary record. "They don't know me from Adam downtown," he said.
They do now.
The $100 million grant from the Gates Foundation has been hailed as a landmark achievement, in part because it came about in close collaboration with the teachers' union.
The objectives of the project are to support teachers in their development and allow the district to base promotion and pay, ultimately, on performance instead of seniority.
Teachers are judged by a combination of highly structured evaluations, by both a peer and the principal and data that includes test scores. The district's 135 peer evaluators, who see teachers in action, get extensive training, said Jean Clements, president of the Hillsborough Classroom Teachers Association. In most cases, they are matched closely to the teachers in subject and age group. There are conferences before and after observations that take place over the course of the year.
The system is so finely tuned, she said, peers agree with principals 74 percent of the time, though their visits happen on different days. Supporters say that with the right training in the evaluation method, a different age group or subject should not matter.
Clements, while saying the union will defend Thomas, finds the Gates system to be a vast improvement over the old evaluations.
"Change is always really, really tough," she said when asked why some teachers object. The new system provides greater differentiation than the old one, which handed out a lot of perfect and near-perfect scores.
And, she said, "I'm sure there are some who just don't like the process."
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That last group includes school board member Stacy White, who at Tuesday's meeting called the system unproven and counterproductive.
"We've made measuring teacher effectiveness so overly complicated," he said, "that the professional confidence of our highly effective teachers is actually deteriorating. And we may not even be making gains in improving and eliminating the ineffective ones."
Member Carol Kurdell urged White to spend time with the trainers and mentors before making such a judgment.
Superintendent MaryEllen Elia said she's proud of teachers for embracing the initiative.
"It is absolutely critical that we have the best person, working constantly to get better, in front of every one of our children," she said. As a result, "our teachers will be better valued by everyone, including the parents and the taxpayers of this community, and our students will be the most successful that they can be."
But Thomas thinks the district will lose seasoned teachers.
He contends, in a written statement, that "the program as designed tends to target veteran teachers who are highly competent and effective in the classroom, but unwilling to adhere to a single style of teaching."
He fears he will be judged harshly if a lesson can't be wrapped up in the 50-minute observation period. Teachers are staging "dog and pony shows," he said, to impress observers.
The last straw came when he was assigned evaluator Justin Youmans, 29, who, according to district records, was hired in 2005 and has taught first through sixth grade. Youmans did not return a phone call seeking comment.
The system, at the union's insistence, lets teachers request a change in evaluator. The district said it would consider Thomas' request. The union urged him, meanwhile, to cooperate and meet with Youmans.
Thomas wouldn't budge. He equated the arrangement to "having a dentist professionally judge a heart surgeon."
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As the district investigates Thomas, it is unclear how many teachers have similar concerns.
A survey, answered by more than 7,000 of 11,500 tested teachers, suggests most are satisfied.
In each of 13 questions, between 80 and 96 percent agreed with statements such as: "My overall experience with my peer evaluator was positive," and "The presence of the peer evaluator in the classroom during the observation was professional and respectful."
White said it's important to consider those who answered unfavorably; for example, the 12 percent who did not get their ratings in a timely manner. "What kind of learning do you think went on in the classroom during that 10-day-plus period when the teacher was on pins and needles?" he asked.
Thomas said he didn't fill out the survey. Clements said the allegation against him is serious.
He's still drawing a paycheck.
But he cannot have any contact with his students.
Marlene Sokol can be reached at (813) 226-3356 or firstname.lastname@example.org.