The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Bill Gates spent a fortune to build it. Now a Florida school system is getting rid of it.

Bill Gates (EPA)

(Update: Adding response from superintendent of Hillsborough)

Here we go again. Another Bill Gates-funded education reform project, starting with mountains of cash and sky-high promises, is crashing to Earth.

This time it’s the Empowering Effective Teachers, an educator evaluation program in Hillsborough County, Florida, which was developed in 2009 with major financial backing from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. A total of more than $180 million has been spent on the project since then  — with Gates initially promising some $100 million of it — but now, the district, one of the largest in the country, is ending the program.


Under the system, 40 percent of a teacher’s evaluation would be based on student standardized test scores and the rest by observation from “peer evaluators.” It turned out that costs to maintain the program unexpectedly rose, forcing the district to spend millions of dollars more than it expected to spend. Furthermore, initial support among teachers waned, with teachers saying that they don’t think it accurately evaluated their effectiveness and that they could be too easily fired.

[Teacher: What it feels like to be evaluated on test scores of students I don’t have]

Now the new superintendent of schools in Hillsborough, Jeff Eakins, said in a missive sent to the evaluators and mentors  that he is moving to a different evaluation system,  according to this story in the Tampa Bay Times.  It says:

Unlike the complex system of evaluations and teacher encouragement that cost more than $100 million to develop and would have cost an estimated $52 million a year to sustain, Hillsborough will likely move to a structure that has the strongest teachers helping others at their schools.
Eakins said he envisions a new program featuring less judgmental “non-evaluative feedback” from colleagues and more “job-embedded professional development,” which is training undertaken in the classroom during the teacher work day rather than in special sessions requiring time away from school. He said in his letter that these elements were supported by “the latest research.”

Gates, the biggest education philanthropist in the country, has been through this before.

In 2000, he began investing in education reform through his foundation. By 2009, he had already spent some $2 billion on reform efforts, including an expensive effort to turn big dropout high schools into smaller schools. That was less successful than he had hoped, and Gates explained in his foundation’s 2009 annual letter that he was dropping that project and would focus his K-12 education funding on teacher effectiveness and the dissemination of best teaching practices.

That led to a project in which he gave hundreds of millions of dollars collectively to a handful of school districts to develop new teacher evaluations based in large part on student standardized test scores. Hillsborough County, Florida, was one of those districts, which won a seven-year $100 million grant in 2009 to create the new teacher mentoring and evaluation program that relied in part on student standardized test scores, a controversial way of evaluating educators.  Gates was an enthusiastic supporter of evaluation by test score, a method that assessment experts say is not reliable or valid but that gained favor with school reformers anyway.

The Gates-backed evaluation program in Hillsborough — which was launched in 2010 and which called for the school district to spend millions of its own dollars — envisioned district and teachers union leaders working together, and in the beginning they did. That didn’t last. It was already clear in 2014 that the evaluation system was in trouble.

In August 2015, the Tampa Bay Tribune reported that the school district had spent more than half  of its $360 million reserve fund in the past two years — and had not told school board members. This was done under the leadership of superintendent MaryEllen Elia, who was fired by the board early this year (and soon after hired as the commissioner of education in New York State). The story says that the big factor driving this spending involved the Gates-funded evaluation system. It says:

Some of the money was used to cover recurring costs during the recession or to make up for revenue lost from the many short-term grants procured by the district. The biggest factor, though, is a new teacher salary schedule that went into effect halfway through the 2013-2014 school year.
In 2013, the school district was heading into the fourth year of a seven-year grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to help raise the bar among its teaching staff — a major factor, the foundation maintains, in student success.
Under its partnership with the foundation, the district needed a new salary schedule that tied raises more closely to a new system of evaluations — a change adopted statewide soon afterward.

Meanwhile, the Tampa Bay Bay Times reported that the Gates Foundation has only paid $80 million of the promised $100 million and it is unclear what relationship the school system will have with the district from here on out.

Back in 2013, Bill Gates said this about the education philanthropy of his foundation, which has dumped several billion dollars into school reform over the past 15 years or so:

“It would be great if our education stuff worked, but that we won’t know for probably a decade.”

Well, it didn’t take that long to know what isn’t working.

[What are Bill Gates and Warren Buffet talking about?]

Here’s a response from Jeff Eakins,  superintendent of Hillsborough County Public Schools:

As an educator, I have always worked to choose words that would make the biggest impact in my classroom and in my school. As a classroom teacher, I wanted to ensure my words would celebrate my students’ successes and challenge them to strive for more. As a principal, I chose words intended to help my staff grow and meet the needs of our students. So it was disheartening to see a recent headline [in the Tampa Bay Times] that read Hillsborough schools to dismantle Gates-funded system that cost millions to develop. By using the word dismantle it is evident to me that some have misinterpreted our district’s vision of ensuring every decision we make is with our students’ future in mind.

It is simple. After seven years with support from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the funding portion of the Gates grant, as planned, is coming to an end. From the beginning, we understood this work involved continuous assessment for improvement. Our district remains committed to applying the most effective components of the current model and modifying other parts in order to create an even stronger system of support for all instructional staff. This plan will in turn create the strongest classroom for students.

I want to make it clear, we are not abandoning, dismantling, or shelving our support system for our instructional staff. What we are doing is capitalizing on what we’ve learned. We will continue to utilize the knowledge gained by the peer evaluators and mentors and we will benefit from their strengths. Teachers have expressed they truly value timely feedback and support from their colleagues, which only advances teacher effectiveness. So our goal will be to position our teacher experts to better allow them to provide that authentic feedback and support.

There are clear benefits from our partnership that will remain with our district. The grant provided the opportunity to work with experts in the field and enabled our own teachers to create a common definition of effective teaching. Our teachers developed a set of tools which clearly defines effective teaching and practices for a variety of instructional roles. This framework, our evaluation rubric, has provided a common language that will foster professional growth moving forward.

Another clear success that has come from this partnership is the development of our mentor program. Educators who are brand new to the teaching profession in Hillsborough County have fully released mentors that provide quality, consistent feedback to them. After completing the two year program, many of these new teachers show evaluation scores that are on par with veteran teachers. The benefits are so clear to our school board, leaders across the district, teachers, and me that we would never want to shelve this program. In fact, it is our priority to offer a mentor relationship to more of our teachers who need it the most.

Our goal now is to take the value that our peers and mentors brought to their roles, make any necessary modifications, and create a system that can be sustained over time. I have asked a committee, consisting of teachers, peer evaluators, mentors, school leaders, district staff, union leaders, and others to review the current evaluation system. The committee will also develop possible models of support which meet the professional development needs of all 16,000 instructional personnel in HCPS, and create classrooms and schools where all students thrive.

In Hillsborough County, we continue to live out our vision by preparing students for life. One of our strategic priorities is to increase our graduation rate. As we see that increase over time, we will know we have put our efforts in the right place. We will never shelve, dismantle, or abandon those efforts.