Last in a series
They are two of the clearest reasons to be both discouraged and hopeful about public education in Tampa Bay. The wide disparities in passing rates for Advanced Placement exams, often within the same high school, indicate a failure by district superintendents and school principals to hold teachers accountable for performance. Looking forward, a $100 million grant to Hillsborough schools by the Gates Foundation offers a wonderful opportunity to improve teacher training and match salaries to more sophisticated measures of performance. The bold experimentation in Hillsborough could show the way to address the sorts of shortcomings exposed by the analysis of AP exams.
There are more immediate steps that can be taken to address a system that rewards schools for increasing the number of students taking AP exams but ignores teachers with ridiculously low exam passing rates. The state should proceed with plans to put more weight on passing rates in evaluating high schools. The schools should re-examine their policies that encourage even unprepared students to take college-level AP classes. Students should be challenged with rigorous courses, but it is a disservice to admit those who have virtually no chance to grasp the material well enough to pass the exam. That is a waste of time and taxpayers' money.
Teachers also should be better prepared to teach AP courses, and the reasons for wide disparities in passing rates within the same schools should be examined. Something is wrong when only a tiny percentage of students are passing AP exams in one teacher's class and other teachers are achieving far higher passing rates within the same student population. It is the principal's responsibility to recognize the problem and address it.
In winning the Gates Foundation grant, the Hillsborough school district has a promising recipe for broader successes. For too long, in regular courses as well as in AP offerings, teachers have been left to fend for themselves in a classroom where they receive little feedback and don't learn the best teaching practices. Too often teachers move through their careers, making more money as they accumulate years of experience and more advanced degrees — regardless of their skills and results in the classroom.
With the Gates grant, Hillsborough plans to dramatically improve teacher training and develop an evaluation model that more closely ties performance with salaries. The emphasis will be on results in the classroom, not the number of advanced degrees and years of teaching experience. To its credit, the teachers' union is on board and fully engaged. While the AP passing rates and the lack of accountability are disappointing, the bold initiative by Hillsborough and the Gates Foundation holds remarkable promise for developing a system that honors the teaching profession, rewards teachers who are successful and identifies those who are not.