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  1. The Education Gradebook

Pasco school officials promise fixes after 'painful' report finds shortfalls

LAND O'LAKES — Pasco County schools are failing to give all students a high-quality education based on the new Florida Standards, according to a report that district officials described as a wakeup call.

The report, released Tuesday after a three-month study by the national nonprofit group the New Teacher Project, found that not enough Pasco teachers are adapting to the demands of the new standards.

It also found that:

• Large portions of the district's curriculum do not conform to the standards.

• Teacher evaluations in Pasco do not provide enough information to determine which teachers excel and which need assistance.

• District hiring practices prevent Pasco from consistently attracting the best teaching candidates.

Officials called the information "painful" and a "slap in the face," and said it will prompt them to improve the way their schools operate.

"We've got 70,000 kids passing through this system each and every day," superintendent Kurt Browning said. "Every day that we pass those kids through this system and we don't teach to those standards, we are doing those kids a huge disservice."

He likened the TNTP report to a doctor's exam.

"TNTP has come in to show us why we ache," Browning said. "Now what we need to do is figure out what the cure is."

Some of the solutions are within easy reach, deputy superintendent Ray Gadd suggested.

Those include steps such as changing time lines so principals can hire teachers earlier than late May or early June. The report showed that 40 percent of teachers are hired shortly before or after classes start each fall, and only 22 percent of school leaders are satisfied with candidate quality.

More than half of school leaders reported losing a candidate because of the district's hiring restrictions.

Other related actions could include doing more to encourage strong teachers to remain with their schools, something TNTP said leaders do not always do.

With such simple moves, Gadd said, "we could start guaranteeing a higher quality of teacher in Pasco County."

To know who the high-quality teachers are, the district needs to change the way it evaluates them, the report indicated.

Nathan Hutto, a TNTP project manager, explained that the current evaluation model does not look at all teachers the same, and does not prioritize whether teachers' instruction is aligned to the standards.

"It is rating instructional practices and it is not rating the content," Hutto said.

In the meantime, almost 99 percent of teachers are rated as "effective" or "highly effective."

"We need to come up with an evaluation system that truly evaluates teachers," Browning said. "When I first saw this data I didn't sleep at night."

School Board member Cynthia Armstrong pointed out that evaluations also suffer from placing high stakes on the results. In some instances, she said, principals don't do evaluations honestly, not wanting to hurt anyone.

"That's what we're stuck with politically," Armstrong said.

The report also suggested that teacher collaborative planning needs to be better focused on expectations for students and lesson design.

School Board members said they viewed the report as a guide to improvement. The district staff plans to bring recommendations to the board's May 19 workshop.

But vice chairwoman Joanne Hurley cautioned that the district has made big moves before.

"My concern is for the staff," Hurley said. "We've been telling them for years now we've been focusing in on how to get to a better place. … How do we tell the staff … this time we really mean it?"

Browning said the district's academic goals are not changing, just the way it supports the teachers and students in getting there. He acknowledged that some employees might be made uncomfortable with new levels of accountability.

"I am okay with that. I am more than okay with that," he said.

The TNTP conducted its review with funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, through the Florida superintendents association.

Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at jsolochek@tampabay.com.

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