As we near the end of Year Two of our Empowering Effective Teachers initiative in Hillsborough County, this is a good time to review progress made, talk about lessons learned and try to counteract some misinformation.
At a recent School Board workshop, we provided an update for more than two hours. Regrettably, the report in the Tampa Bay Times focused exclusively on the few negative comments at the end of the meeting. Your readers missed out on some of the important factual information shared regarding Hillsborough's reform efforts.
This is the second school year in which our teachers have been given more information and more feedback than ever regarding their performance in the classroom. We meet with teachers and visit schools on a regular basis, and I know some teachers have been on edge with the new system. That is understandable. This is a big change.
Teachers now have their principal and a peer evaluator visiting their classroom at least five times a year and providing detailed feedback. Under the old system, principals were the only evaluators, and some teachers were observed once every three years! The results under the old evaluations were unrealistic. Roughly 99 percent of our teachers were satisfactory and about 75 percent had perfect or nearly perfect scores. Principals were not the problem; they were solely responsible for evaluations and were being asked to observe lessons in subject areas outside of their expertise. The evaluation system had flaws in that it provided limited opportunity for feedback for teachers to get better.
So, how are our teachers faring with the new system?
You may have heard that a large number of our teachers are getting low scores based on the observations. That's not true. Overall, about 2 percent of all the observation scores were "requires action," which is the lowest score. More than 70 percent of the scores were "accomplished" or "exemplary," the top two scoring levels. That's not surprising. Our teachers are doing a great job and that's evident even under the new, tougher evaluation system.
But this new system isn't really about the evaluation. The real value of the system is that it jump-starts professional conversations and reflection, and serves as a road map for improvement with professional development. We have found that when teachers understand the rubric and engage in a give and take with their principal and their peer, they find the system rewarding. It is educators working with educators for the benefit of children.
As for lessons learned, we have always been open to making changes based on input from our teachers and principals. We already have added "informal" observations as part of our plan, at the request of many teachers. Before the end of the school year, we plan to ask our teachers to vote on a number of items that have been hot buttons. If a majority of our teachers want to make a change, we'll change it.
In Hillsborough County we are in a unique position. Our project to increase student achievement by supporting teacher improvement, which we started more than two years ago, is now mirrored in a new state law. Across the state, districts are rushing to create new evaluation systems. There is no returning to the old way of teacher evaluations. We have a head start, and we are fortunate to have support in our efforts.
Our partnership with the College Board was also mentioned in the workshop. At a time when college is more competitive and tuition costs are going up across the state and nation, anything that helps students get into college and helps families control tuition costs is worth pursuing.
Advanced Placement courses are now an integral part of Florida's accountability system because the courses challenge students. In Hillsborough County, we are a national leader in using AP to challenge our students. Last year's scores equated to a potential savings of $6.9 million in college costs for students and parents.
Make no mistake: These are our projects. All our initiatives are focused on increasing student achievement, and we are grateful to have major support from the Gates Foundation, the Wallace Foundation and the College Board so we can help our teachers and our students reach their full potential.
In this time of the desire to reduce and control taxes, the ongoing financial challenges, and extreme budget cuts, we make no apologies for securing private grant funding to help us keep moving forward for the benefit of students. To do otherwise would be to shortchange taxpayers, our teachers, and especially our students.
MaryEllen Elia is superintendent of Hillsborough County Public Schools.