Advertisement
  1. Education

Hillsborough schools to dismantle Gates-funded system that cost millions to develop

Microsoft founder Bill Gates talks with Jefferson High School student Angel Lozado during a chemistry class when Gates and his wife, Melinda, visited the school in November 2011.
Published Oct. 30, 2015

TAMPA — After six years of effort, high hopes and more than $180 million spent, the Hillsborough County school system is unraveling the teacher evaluation system it developed with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

The news came in an email this week from superintendent Jeff Eakins to more than 260 "peer evaluators" and mentors who form the core of the system.

It also arrived as the once-cordial relationship between the district and its teachers union imploded Thursday. The two sides walked away from each other in anger as talks over a salary agreement for the current school year broke down.

Eakins announced in his email he has formed a committee to transition away from the once-touted Gates program, and said a number of employee groups would be on the panel.

Unlike the complex system of evaluations and teacher encouragement that cost more than $100 million to develop and would have cost an estimated $52 million a year to sustain, Hillsborough will likely move to a structure that has the strongest teachers helping others at their schools.

Eakins said he envisions a new program featuring less judgemental "non-evaluative feedback" from colleagues and more "job-embedded professional development," which is training undertaken in the classroom during the teacher work day rather than in special sessions requiring time away from school. He said in his letter that these elements were supported by "the latest research."

That's a radical departure from the classroom observations carried out by full-time evaluators who rated the teachers according to a rubric, or scorecard. Bill Gates, the founder of Microsoft, and his wife Melinda funded the project and others in U.S. cities through their philanthropic organization.

They hoped the system would create a hierarchy of teachers who could be paid based on their skills. Struggling teachers would be given assistance or, in the worst cases, fired or counseled out of the profession.

The foundation was expected to contribute $100 million through 2016, but instead paid $80 million. It is unclear to what extent the organization will continue to be involved in Hillsborough or whether it will forward any more money to the district.

The school district, meanwhile, has spent well beyond the $100 million it pledged, although some of the money was for related projects including a principal training program.

READ MORE: How Hillsborough County's Gates grant became a budget buster

Among the selling points Hillsborough made back in 2009 when securing the Gates foundation's support: a close working relationship between district officials and the Hillsborough Classroom Teachers Association. District leaders praised and promoted the union at public gatherings, and assured teachers that members were equal partners in designing the system.

The Gateses hoped the newly developed systems in Hillsborough and elsewhere would result in all students — especially those with the highest needs — getting quality teachers.

But in a report published Sunday, the Tampa Bay Times showed the project fell short of many of its goals and cost more to sustain than the district could afford.

Lower-income schools continue to hire the newest and least qualified teachers. Test scores are still measurably lower for poor and minority students. And Hillsborough's graduation rate now lags behind other large counties in Florida.

As it rolled out the Gates-funded system, the district agreed to a new pay plan for teachers that added $65 million a year to payroll costs. That amount does not include more than $12 million in performance bonuses, which are now required by state law.

Despite those costs, which were revealed during the summer, the teachers union entered this year's negotiations with hopes of getting raises for teachers and classroom aides, who earn as little as $9.12 an hour.

Negotiations were suspended as district officials grappled with news that they were spending down too much of their reserves.

When talks finally resumed, the union asked for support workers' hourly wages to increase in three phases until they started at $10.77. For teachers, the union wanted everyone to advance a pay year and get an additional $1,000. For the highest-paid employees, the union asked for a 2 percent bonus.

Both sides described the proposal as a first step.

But Thursday's bargaining session was over almost as soon as it began. Mark West, the district's employee relations manager, said because of the district's budget difficulties, he would have little to offer anyone, including the support employees.

"I'm glad you're comfortable leaving your employees living in poverty," union executive director Stephanie Baxter-Jenkins shot back.

"I'm not saying I'm comfortable," West said.

Not long after, Baxter-Jenkins told the district's team, "You might as well just go."

While West spoke of the district's financial difficulties, Eakins did not mention money in his email about the Gates program.

Instead, he cited new research that suggests it is better for teachers to help one another than to mark each other down on scorecards.

"By bridging current research with the knowledge gained from the last six years, we will build an even stronger support model for our students and teachers," he wrote.

"Specifically, this transition will enable highly effective teachers to sharpen their teaching skills as they work directly with students every day. … Both teachers and students will benefit from the collegial relationships that develop over time."

Eakins did not mention the Gates situation, or the Times report, in a four-hour televised School Board meeting Tuesday. But in his email, he said "newspaper articles, social media and the general buzz" around the Gates grant had moved him to address the peer evaluators.

He drew on his own years as an elementary school teacher to praise those who took part in the experiment.

"My peers challenged me to reflect on my practice and provided indispensable guidance starting on my very first day in the classroom and continuing throughout my teaching career," he wrote.

Contact Marlene Sokol at (813) 226-3356 or msokol@tampabay.com. Follow @marlenesokol.

ALSO IN THIS SECTION

  1. Yogi Goswami
    The Molekule Air Mini is a scaled-down version of its original purifier.
  2. Representatives from the Pasco County school district and the United School Employees of Pasco discuss salary and benefits during negotiations on Sept. 18, 2019. JEFFREY SOLOCHEK  |  Times Staff Writer
    As expected, the union rejected the district’s plan to add work for middle and high school teachers in exchange for more money.
  3. DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times (2018) Hernando County School District office, 919 N Broad St., Brooksville
    Hernando County debates the pros and cons of superintendent John Stratton’s recommendation.
  4. The University of South Florida revealed a new plan for the school's consolidation Thursday morning. Unlike the first plan presented in September, it promises a high level of authority to leaders on campuses in St. Petersburg, shown here, and Sarasota. [SCOTT KEELER   |   Times]
    A proposal by USF President Steve Currall and two regional chancellors would keep strong leadership over academics and spending in place across all three USF campuses.
  5. Fifth grade teacher Michelle Brandon is one of four Hudson Elementary School teachers to be removed after two weeks of classes because of her state VAM score. Here she reviews classroom rules with students on the first day of school 2019. JEFFREY SOLOCHEK  |  Times
    A roundup of stories from around the state.
  6. FILE - In this Wednesday, July 10, 2019 file photo, 6-year-old elementary school students go through the lunch line in the school's cafeteria in Paducah, Ky. Nearly a million students could lose their automatic eligibility for free school lunches under a Trump administration proposal that's expected to reduce the number of people who get food stamps. In October 2019, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has released an analysis finding as many as 982,000 children could be affected by the change. ELLEN O'NAN  |  AP
    The U.S. Department of Agriculture has released details of an analysis that found that as many as 982,000 children could be affected by the change.
  7. In this image from a Pinellas County school district video, former School Board member Lee Benjamin motions to someone he knows while sitting with family members during at 2013 ceremony to name the Northeast High School gymnasium in his honor. Mr. Benjamin was the school's first basketball coach in 1954 and later became Northeast's principal in a long career with Pinellas schools that included 14 years on the School Board. He died Wednesday at age 92. Pinellas County Schools
    A teacher, coach and principal at Northeast High, he rose to district administrator and served on the School Board. Mr. Benjamin died Wednesday at age 92.
  8. Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri chairs the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission, which is preparing its second round of recommendations for lawmakers.
    A roundup of stories from around the state.
  9. University of South Florida forensic anthropologist Erin Kimmerle pieces together a skull that might have been Amelia Earhart's. SANDRA C. ROA  |  University of South Florida
    DNA from a skull found in 1940 could prove whether the famous aviator has been found.
  10. A Hernando County Sheriff's deputy talks to students in the cafeteria of Brooksville Elementary School in 2018. Earlier this month, the school district put forward a proposal to move away from a contract with the Sheriff and establish its own police force. On Tuesday, it announced it would drop that idea.
    Hernando County Sheriff Al Nienhuis spoke out this week against the proposal.
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement