Officials: Few Hillsborough teachers to be fired under Gates evaluation system

Published June 17, 2012

TAMPA — It was to be a carrot-and-stick approach: Great teachers would be rewarded for their greatness. And those who could not or would not measure up? They'd be asked to find another line of work.

Critics of the Gates-funded Empowering Effective Teachers often paint the massive overhaul of the teacher evaluation process as a union-busting scheme to get rid of experienced, well-paid teachers.

The reality, district and union officials say, is quite different.

As the Hillsborough County School District analyzes its second full year of written evaluations and waits for data that will complete the scores, it's likely very few teachers will be let go.

Officials anticipate so few terminations that they're not bothered that scores will not be complete until September or October of the new school year.

"We expect the number would be really small," said Jean Clements, president of the Hillsborough Classroom Teachers Association.

David Steele, the district's chief technology officer who heads the project, estimated that only 40 teachers worked this past year after earning the lowest rating of "unsatisfactory." That's minuscule in a district with more than 13,000 teachers.

Teachers can be recommended for termination after two consecutive unsatisfactory ratings. But such firings were unusual under the old system and should remain unusual now, Clements and Steele said.

One reason: Struggling teachers often quit or retire before they are shown the door.

Another: Under the new system, teachers get early warning about problems and have a chance to correct deficiencies.

"If they were in that (unsatisfactory) category, they had lots of observations," Clements said.

She said she had heard of imperiled teachers whose scores improved this year, possibly because of the new process.

"In the past, teachers did not receive that much feedback," she said. "This system gives them a better chance. It allows you to identify weaknesses very early in a career, and in a school year."

Whether the new system helps or demoralizes teachers — or both — is a topic of disagreement.

Clements has said consistently that Hillsborough was lucky to win a $100 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to launch Empowering Effective Teachers in 2010.

By joining in the Gates effort, the district was freed from some provisions of a 2011 state law that ordered districts to move from a seniority system to one based on performance.

Hillsborough is taking seven years to develop Empowering Effective Teachers. And unlike the state formula, which bases at least 50 percent of a teacher's rating on student performance, Hillsborough's system has three components.

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Up to 30 points come from the principal, 30 from a peer evaluator, and 40 from student performance data.

Some teachers have struggled with the peer evaluation component. Lucy O'Regan, an East Bay High School English teacher entering her final year before retirement, said she can name a dozen who are leaving the field because of the new system.

"It has destroyed morale and made people watch their backs," said O'Regan, who has a Facebook page called "EET Concerns."

Complaints about the peer evaluation process were an issue for Clements this year when she ran for re-election as union president. Challenged by a teacher who had rejected his evaluator, Clements won with 54 percent of the vote after nearly a decade in office.

Since then, district and union officials have been polling teachers on issues that concern them, though critics such as O'Regan say the polling is not extensive enough.

One such issue is the notice given before informal "drop-in" evaluations from peers. The union did not want these visits to be a complete surprise, so the district agreed to give notice, typically a window of several days.

Some teachers felt rattled during those days. So the district and union asked: Would you rather the visit be a surprise? Or do you prefer some notice?

Of the 6,500 teachers and administrators who responded, 92 percent voted to keep the notification system as is.

There also were concerns about the word "developing," which evaluators use when a teacher appears not to have mastered a particular aspect of the job. Most wanted a different word. The greatest number (34 percent) chose "progressing."

The third question asked whether principals and peer evaluators should give the same number of points, even though some parts of the evaluation are completed only by the principal — for example, how well the teacher maintains records and collaborates with colleagues.

Seventy-four percent voted to readjust the 30-30-40 scoring formula to give about 35 points to principals and only 25 to peer evaluators.

The union plans to discuss these preferences during contract negotiations, which begin this week.

Like O'Regan, retired teacher Renee Kelly believes the process is flawed and good teachers are needlessly being discouraged.

Her daughter is a teacher and her son is studying to become a teacher, she said. Kelly, 56, left the field early, she said, largely because of her dissatisfaction with the new evaluation system.

She has encouraged her children to stay with it. As she sees it, the accountability movement and the Gates project, like many aspects of education, are cyclical.

"I've seen things come and I've seen things go,'" she said. "So I tell them, 'Ride it out.' "

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