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  1. Opinion

Editorial: Gates partnership ran off track in Hillsborough

Hillsborough school officials celebrate word of the $100 million grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Six years later, the school district faces financial strains, the state of teaching is unclear and the future of the reforms is in doubt.
Hillsborough school officials celebrate word of the $100 million grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Six years later, the school district faces financial strains, the state of teaching is unclear and the future of the reforms is in doubt.
Published Oct. 30, 2015

A runaway budget. Millions to consultants. Pay raises for people who don't work in the classroom. These are all discomforting legacies of the heralded partnership with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation that was to transform the quality of teaching within Hillsborough County schools. But six years after the project was launched, the school district faces financial strains, the state of teaching is unclear and the new superintendent has abruptly headed in a different direction. It's a lesson in how big ambitions can be undermined by inattention to detail and a frustrating reminder of how difficult it can be to turn around bureaucracies.

In an exhaustive report, the Tampa Bay Times' Marlene Sokol recently chronicled how a $100 million gift from the Gates foundation ballooned into an ever-increasing financial effort that has had a mixed record of success in the classroom. The Gates grant was meant to reform how teachers were evaluated and paid, with the goal of improving teaching practices and clearing bad teachers from the profession so that students — especially poor, minority children — would be better prepared for college and the modern workplace.

But as the Times found, the Gates project quickly spiraled in many directions. Originally paired with $100 million from the school district, the program's cost has risen to $271 million with related projects, with the district's share now coming to $124 million. Pay raises went to a wider group than envisioned, including hundreds of people who don't work in the classroom full time — if at all. Thousands of employees got one-year raises of $8,000; some raises were as high as $15,000, or 25 percent. More than $23 million of the money went to consultants. Millions of dollars were pledged to efforts that educators are rethinking, including an elaborate system for peer evaluators to assess the quality of classroom teachers.

The turnaround effort quickly became a bureaucracy of its own and contributed to the district's higher outlay for salaries. Peer evaluators and mentors now number about 265, a staff that did not exist before 2010. Raises negotiated as the Gates system took effect added $65 million a year to district expenses, apart from bonus pay. The training program was expanded to cover counselors, media specialists and other support staff. And though the effort was meant to address gaps in scholastic opportunities, most big-money raises went to teachers in well-off neighborhood schools instead of those in struggling, inner-city classrooms.

The district is now examining what elements of the project to keep after the Gates grant expires next year. In a memo to employees, Superintendent Jeff Eakins announced last week he had formed an internal committee that is aimed at undoing the teacher evaluation system developed under Gates. That all but raises the white flag. While it is difficult to compare graduation rates then and now, the county has fallen when compared with the state's largest school districts. The achievement gap affecting poor and minority students still exists even as test scores on the whole are on the rise and as more students take advanced courses. What's been going on for the last six years? What have these hundreds of millions of dollars bought beyond higher salaries and consultants? The public and the philanthropic community need to see measurable gains. The district needs to find a way to build on what works. But this expensive venture needs something more to show than an improved relationship between teachers and the administration. What has changed that has percolated down to students in the classroom?

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