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Report: Gates reforms brought mixed success, slow improvement to Hillsborough schools

Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates talks with a Jefferson High School student in 2011. Gates and his wife, Melinda, visited as part of their foundation’s education reform effort.
Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates talks with a Jefferson High School student in 2011. Gates and his wife, Melinda, visited as part of their foundation’s education reform effort.
Published Jun. 11, 2016

TAMPA — Bill Gates wanted poor and minority students to have a fair shot at getting the best teachers public schools had to offer. That's a key reason his foundation plowed hundreds of millions of dollars into teaching reform efforts across the nation, including Hillsborough County.

Did it work? Yes and no.

Early results of a study by the Rand Corp. and the American Institutes for Research show top teachers are being steered to schools that serve low-income minority students. But once they arrive, those teachers are likely to teach whiter, wealthier students.

Results were similarly muddled when it came to improved student achievement, another of Gates' goals.

And, while principals saw value in a new way of evaluating teachers, the study indicates Hillsborough teachers had little confidence in the process.

While Hillsborough officials dispute that last point, they are eliminating a key component of the system — structured evaluations by a cadre of classroom observers from outside the school.

The researchers say their work — which is also funded by Gates — is ongoing. Regardless of the final results, they say school leaders can learn lessons about the challenges of placing good teachers where they are needed most.

"The findings so far confirm for us that changing systems to improve teaching quality is very complex work and requires persistence and patience," said Mary Beth Lambert, senior communications officer for the Gates group.

"We are hopeful that the recent uptick in student outcomes and other progress will continue and is an encouraging trend that we hope will be reflected in the final report due out next year."

• • •

Back in 2009, when Gates invited school districts to take part in his initiative, the Microsoft billionaire had ambitious goals that included getting more students into college and improving the United States' position in the global economy.

Hillsborough leaders were eager to join, knowing Florida was gearing up for its own reforms. The thinking among union leaders, administrators and School Board members was that the Gates money and expertise would give Hillsborough a leg up on other districts.

But, as in the other communities that signed on — Memphis, Pittsburgh and several charter school groups in California — change was difficult and costly.

The school districts were supposed to match the Gates grants with local philanthropic gifts. But, compared to the other districts, the Rand report shows Hillsborough leaders raised little from charities to match the $100 million they expected from Gates — an amount that was later reduced to $80.1 million.

Hillsborough raised just 1 percent of the program funds from charity sources, the Rand report said, compared with the 13 percent raised by Memphis.

Instead, Hillsborough used money from existing programs with similar objectives and sought government grants. Combined with related projects, the total cost of reform grew to $271 million, according to reports submitted to Gates.

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• • •

The district created hundreds of new jobs for teacher evaluators, who carried out the observations; and mentors who were assigned to help new teachers.

A salary plan, negotiated as the district was being praised for its cordial labor relations, rewarded teachers for both performance and seniority. Salary costs from the general fund, by far the district's largest bucket of money, rose 25 percent between the 2010-11 and 2014-15 school years.

Other costs also rose, district spokeswoman Tanya Arja pointed out.

But general fund revenues grew only 6.5 percent in those four years. And the bite to payroll — $77 million between 2014 and 2015 alone — contributed to a problem Hillsborough developed with its bond-rating agencies, which saw a sharp drop in reserve fund levels.

The three agencies are now watching closely as district leaders work to slash spending.

The Rand researchers, meanwhile, are trying to see how much the Gates project has helped teachers teach and students learn.

In Hillsborough, they found, teachers and principals now spend more time in training. In 2011, the average Hillsborough teacher spent 83 percent of the week teaching and 4 percent in training. Those numbers shifted to 71 and 12 percent by 2013.

"Everything we are doing now is focusing on the learner," Arja said. "We are doing that by bringing the training to the teachers and embedding it in their school."

• • •

The Rand results were not so encouraging when it came to the evaluation process, which was supposed to weed out teachers not suited for the job.

Only 20 percent of Hillsborough teachers found the process fair to all teachers — tied with Pittsburgh as the lowest among the Gates school districts surveyed — and 54 percent thought it was fair to them individually, the lowest percentage of any of the groups.

Principals, by contrast, found the evaluators' feedback helpful.

Hillsborough officials disagreed with the notion, based on those numbers, that the system was unpopular. "Teachers say the feedback they received has prompted them to make changes in their practice, which has impacted student achievement," Arja said.

But Hillsborough superintendent Jeff Eakins announced in late 2015 that, based on current research, he wanted teachers to get "non-evaluative" feedback — and from their colleagues within the school walls, not outsiders.

To make that transition, he eliminated the peer evaluator jobs, added more mentors and created a new hybrid teacher-mentor job.

Those changes will take effect in the coming school year.

"We are not dismantling the work we have done," Arja said. Rather, she said, the district is streamlining the evaluation process to make it more helpful to teachers and, by extension, their students.

• • •

The question of whether Hills-borough students are learning more than they did in 2009 required complicated mathematics, as Florida has changed its testing system twice since the Gates project began. The researchers compared Hillsborough's rates of progress to those in other Florida districts to get around that problem.

Math and reading scores for grades 3 to 8, which lagged behind the state before the Gates reforms, began to improve. By 2014, Hillsborough's younger students appeared to be catching up with the rest of the state.

But high school reading scores dropped for poor and minority students, the researchers concluded. And dropout rates rose.

Overall, they wrote, it appears student performance in all the districts has improved in the most recent years.

"A delay in positive effects is not completely surprising, given the time it took to implement many of the initiative's elements," said Michael S. Garet, vice president at American Institutes for Research. "These sites completely overhauled their evaluation, staffing, professional development, compensation and career policies, which does not happen overnight."

The issue of why low-income minority students appear to have less access to top teachers is also a bit of a mystery, the authors wrote. Some of it might be related to different courses offered at middle and high schools, or even in discrepancies in the way teachers at different schools are evaluated.

It's an area that they want to study further. "Efforts to improve low-income minority students' access to effective teachers should focus on improving within-school access to effective teachers at all grade levels," the Rand report said.

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

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