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Hillsborough officials optimistic in report to Gates Foundation

Published May 5, 2013

TAMPA — The latest report from the Hillsborough County school district to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation presents a mixed, but mostly positive assessment of the district's $200 million teaching reform effort.

Academic rigor, measured by everything from state test scores to National Merit Scholar awards, is on the rise, according to the 68-page document. New teacher retention has increased from 72 to 94 percent. A grant-funded administrative training program called Principal Pipeline is complementing the increased teacher training.

Goals that remain include helping teachers get more comfortable with the evaluation process and pinpointing funding sources once the seven-year Gates grant runs out.

"We have gone to great lengths to answer all questions and reach all stakeholders," the document says. "It's clear that many lessons have been learned along the way but, fortunately, they are the type that influence our future direction, rather than those that present roadblocks along the way."

The district reports twice a year to the Seattle-based foundation on the progress of Empowering Effective Teachers.

"We believe the work is going well and the challenges in Hillsborough are the same types of challenges we are seeing in other school districts," said Debbie Veney Robinson, a spokeswoman for the foundation.

"They are certainly better equipped than most to face those challenges because they were ahead of the curve. We continue to be really pleased with the progress that they're making."

Known in the school system as EET, the project is a massive undertaking, affecting some 15,000 employees. Long paid and promoted largely by seniority, teachers and administrators are making a transition to a system that rewards performance.

That performance is measured through highly structured observations by peers and administrators; and a value-added system that looks at student growth.

The report listed 19 indications of improved student achievement. A few examples: Hillsborough's high school graduation rate rose by 3.3 percent in 2012. The achievement gap between white and African-American students was narrowed on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test in math and reading. And Advanced Placement exam scores of 3, 4 or 5 have doubled over the last six years.

The report also acknowledged challenges that remain. Among them:

• Using test scores to evaluate teachers is controversial nationwide, and that holds for Hillsborough as well. The district uses a complex system that measures growth, factoring in variables such as poverty, absenteeism and learning disabilities.

Training and explanation are required to help teachers understand what the data can and cannot do. For example: Research shows value-added data can predict a student's success. But the students' test scores themselves are far more useful in classroom planning.

• Replacements are frequently needed for peer evaluators and mentors. Thirty-two cycled back to the classroom this year, as the program envisioned. Eighteen more mentors were needed when that part of the program was expanded to include second-year teachers.

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• While confident they can find funding to sustain the program after the Gates grant ends in 2017, officials say it is too early to pinpoint the sources. They're exploring a variety of options, including government programs such as Race to the Top. So far, the district reports, 60 percent of the money spent has come from sources other than Gates.

• Support from teachers has not come easily. The district has received national recognition for its collaborative relationship with the teachers' union. Despite that relationship, surveys show many teachers remain skeptical.

Not mentioned was a survey in December that showed nearly 60 percent of teachers did not think EET was good for the district, and 54 percent did not think it was good for them or their schools. District officials said those numbers have improved since the same survey was given in 2011.

Nevertheless, the district continues to work to tell teachers change is happening "with" them and not "to" them. "Teachers are critical to effecting change in a school district, and getting them on board will enable this culture shift to take hold more completely," the report said.

The report also gives breakdowns of top, middle and lower-level scores in schools of various income levels. There, too, results were mixed.

"Teachers in affluent schools tend to score higher, but not to the extent previously believed," said David Steele, the project's manager.

At the other end of the income scale, officials had feared they'd find a concentration of lower teacher scores. To some extent they did, but Steele believes experience is the factor. Sixteen percent of teachers are in the poorest schools, he said, while only 12.6 percent of those scoring in the highest value-add category are in those schools.

Younger teachers tend to earn lower scores, he said. And when he isolated out teachers with five or fewer years of experience, he found they made up of 38 percent of the staff in the poorest schools and 24 percent of the staff in the wealthier schools.

Those concerns are not limited to Hillsborough. A Stanford University study, which looked at the Miami-Dade Public Schools, showed that not only are lower-income and minority students more likely to get novice teachers; within schools, there is pattern of teacher sorting that often assigns the most highly qualified teachers to the strongest — and therefore least needy — students.

Marlene Sokol can be reached at (813) 226-3356 or