In a few days, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation could alter the future of Hillsborough public schools and chart a progressive path to success for public schools across the country. The district is competing for a $100 million grant that would enhance the way it educates students, and it has demonstrated a considerable commitment in resources and local dollars to make fundamental changes. All the district needs now is that final boost from Gates.
Hillsborough is smart to seize the moment. Money alone is not enough; neither is desire for improvement. Combine the two, and there is the rare opportunity for meaningful change in the way schools work and students learn. That's what Hillsborough hopes to achieve.
Apart from students' home lives, teachers can make the biggest difference in their success, and the Hillsborough plan focuses on teacher effectiveness. The goals are simple: Identify good teachers, mentor and boost them up, giving them more pay and more opportunities for classroom success. Then winnow out poor teachers and get them out of the classroom.
That will require a fair but hard-nosed method of evaluating teacher effectiveness. Only 0.6 percent of Hillsborough teachers were rated unsatisfactory or needing improvement last year, and school officials nationwide must acknowledge success means some teachers will get rewards and other teachers will get dismissed.
The Hillsborough teachers' union, while initially skeptical of the Gates proposal, sees great promise and is willing to be a partner even though it still has some concerns. A successful plan will reward excellent teachers and root out poor ones, and it will attract better candidates for teachers as young people choose careers.
The Gates foundation winnowed 16,000 districts across the nation to a short list of candidates that includes Hillsborough, which has been willing to experiment to improve education. If it receives the Gates money, it will match it with $102 million in grants and district funds, leading to a seven-year, $202 million grand experiment.
Hillsborough can serve as a laboratory for the rapid improvement of public education in America. Here's hoping it gets the chance.