TAMPA — A top official for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is in Tampa this week, meeting with Hillsborough County school district staff, teachers and members of the business community to see how the district’s evaluation and mentoring program for teachers is faring.
The Empowering Effective Teachers program, now in its fourth year, is fueled by a seven-year, $100 million grant from the foundation. It pairs new teachers with seasoned ones to mentor and evaluate their performance.
Since the program has been in place, district officials say, graduation rates have gone up, as well as retention rates for beginner teachers, student scores on national tests and the number of students who take higher-level courses.
Now that the foundation’s seven-year grant is more than halfway done, the focus is shifting more toward how to keep the program going after the grant expires, said foundation education director Vicki Phillips.
“We’re particularly interested in the district’s plans for sustainability,” Phillips told reporters Tuesday on a visit to Blake High School. “Our bottom line is the most effective factor in a student’s performance in school is the teacher. We believe to help teachers be their best is the way we can help students be more successful.”
The district does not yet have a solid plan for funding once the grant runs out, but schools Superintendent MaryEllen Elia said teacher recruitment, training and retention are crucial and will continue to be a priority for the district.
Phillips said the foundation probably still will collaborate with the district to some degree, even though it might not be able to offer it another big grant.
From the beginning, teachers had concerns about the program, including that it added to the already heavy load of statewide changes to which teachers had to adjust. Those changes include shifting to more rigorous standards for students that will be aligned to a brand-new test they will take starting next school year.
Hillsborough rolled out the program in the 2010-11 school year, the year before Florida put into place new requirements for teacher evaluations for districts across the state. The new system ties teachers’ pay to how well they score on their evaluations.
In Hillsborough, 40 percent of a teacher’s evaluation comes from test scores; the rest comes from observations by the principal and peer mentor.
On Tuesday, Phillips said she’s noticed improvements in several areas since the Empowering Effective Teachers program began, including a stronger principal observation process that offers more professional development for teachers, and including teachers in the process of deciding which tweaks are made to the program.
She said she’s also impressed with the way teachers have been trained in the Common Core State Standards, a set of academic goals for students in reading and math that Florida adopted in 2010. The state made some revisions to the standards, which emphasize critical thinking across all subjects, and now call them the “Florida Standards.”
“I think they’re paying a lot of attention to teacher development from one end of the spectrum to another,” Phillips said.
The program still has its skeptics, but district and Gates foundation officials said teachers have warmed up to it for the most part.
“Teachers are rightly skeptical going in,” Phillips said. “What we see happens is if you’ve got teachers at the table and they continue to problem-solve and adjust on good feedback, that means a lot to them.’’
School board member Candy Olson said during a March 18 meeting that teachers seem to be less worried about the initiative.
“This was a drastic, dramatic change,” she said. “I know it caused a whole lot more fear, pain and anger than positive warm fuzzy feelings. My friends who have been teachers for a longer time seem to be more uncomfortable with it. I think more people are getting less fearful about it.”
During a presentation by district staff at the same meeting, a third-year teacher and her peer evaluator told board members about their experiences with the process.
Hilary Clark, a Shaw Elementary special education teacher, said the observation process can be stressful, but that the feedback she receives from her principal and peer evaluator had helped her improve.
“Using their feedback, I’ve literally transformed my classroom, teaching strategies and students,” she said.