TAMPA — A veteran teacher was suspended Thursday for rejecting the evaluator chosen for him under a Gates-funded initiative that is revolutionizing the way the Hillsborough County School District assesses its teachers.
School and union officials believe this is the first such act of defiance under Empowering Effective Teachers, a complex system of mentoring and evaluation funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
The district's action comes just one day after the couple themselves, Bill and Melinda Gates, toured Jefferson High School, where the computer mogul hailed the program as a national model and called its success "phenomenal."
Joseph Thomas, 43, a social studies teacher at Newsome High School, said he refused to schedule a peer observation because he feels the evaluator, Justin Youmans, is not qualified to judge him.
Youmans, 29, has his experience teaching elementary school and sixth grade, according to his school district biography. "He thinks like an elementary school teacher," said Thomas, a teacher for 18 years.
Officials in the school district and the Hillsborough Classroom Teachers Association said the evaluators undergo extensive training. What's more, they said, it is not unusual for a principal to evaluate someone even if their experience is in different age groups or subjects.
The school district also issued this statement:
"The district has an evaluation process and he has refused to comply with that process. That is insubordinate conduct under the Teacher Tenure Act. Until the district can look into the circumstances thoroughly, he has been removed from the classroom."
Until now, Thomas has had a clean disciplinary record, the district confirmed.
But he has been troubled by the new system for some time. "It's absolutely demoralizing," he said. "We're being treated unfairly, and it's extremely subjective."
He has been trading emails with union and school district officials about their choice of evaluators since early October. On Wednesday, he shared his concerns with the St. Petersburg Times. On Thursday, the district's Professional Standards office told him he was to be suspended, with pay, pending an investigation.
Thomas said he is not allowed contact with his students. He can visit the campus, where his son is a sophomore, only in his role as a parent.
The Gates system, funded in part by a $100 million grant from the foundation, replaces the old method of evaluating teachers, a somewhat informal process in which the principal or assistant principal filled out a checklist.
Under the new system, teachers are assessed in three ways; highly structured evaluations by the principal and peer, and a numerical component based on test scores and other data.
The idea is to retain, promote and pay teachers according to their value rather than seniority. A new state law requires all districts to move to similar methods of performance-based pay.
Thomas said he has not been told how long the investigation might take.
Marlene Sokol can be reached at (813) 226-3356 or firstname.lastname@example.org.