Hillsborough wrestles with how to share teacher evaluations
TAMPA - Imagine knowing what your child's teacher is good at before the school year even starts. Or choosing a school based on the number of teachers with a track record of raising student test scores. That's what some parents and others hope to see in Hillsborough County as the school district continues its seven-year journey to overhaul education. Empowering Effective Teachers, which is funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, focuses on one of the most important influences in a child's academic success: the teacher.Two years ago, the district agreed to accept a $100 million grant and spend at least another $100 million to improve the hiring and training of teachers in addition to providing them with better support. As they continue to grow and excel professionally, teachers can earn bigger paychecks. The ultimate goal, district leaders say, is higher student achievement. Hillsborough just completed the first year of the plan, releasing to teachers last month the scores from evaluations that for the first time include input from principals and peers, and other measures that factor in individual student learning gains. By the end of the school year, those results will become available for public review, Superintendent MaryEllen Elia told parents last week at a meeting about the district's work. The district still is analyzing the new scores, Elia said, and determining the best way to share the findings with parents. State law prevents the release of individual evaluations until a year after they are completed. Early next year, Hillsborough will roll out new school score cards that will include state grades along with attendance and discipline records. Still, there are no plans to put teacher evaluations online, said David Steele, the district's director of information and technology. * * * * * Just seeing teachers' scores wouldn't fully explain what kind of teachers they are or what went into determining the scores, Steele said. And it might give parents just enough information to draw the wrong conclusion. Instead, Steele, a former teacher, suggested that parents rely on a more conventional way to check up on their children's teachers: Go meet them in person and talk with them frequently. Parents already have access to teachers' evaluations and other personnel information, but they have to make a public-records request with the district's communications office. Not many do. Spokeswoman Linda Cobbe said she receives fewer than six such requests a year from parents. The district has a request form on its website, and Cobbe said her office can share the information via email or parents can view it at the district's headquarters in downtown Tampa. Jose Colindres of The Brink Foundation, a local family organization that works with low-income and minority communities to improve education, thinks the district can do more. He said other professionals, including doctors and lawyers, already provide such information online. "What's more important than your teachers?'' said Colindres, who argues the results should be made public sooner. "Whenever something is measured, there's a tendency to want to move the needle in the right direction,'' he said. The district could post its findings now, without naming the teachers, which would comply with the law but give parents instant information to help their children, he said. For instance, if a school graded a D by the state had an abundance of teachers rated exemplary, that could indicate something else is out of whack, Colindres said, like a lack of parental involvement or other support. It also would be a useful community tool if the district could show how teacher evaluations correlated with each school's overall outcome, he said. * * * * * Elia said releasing the data now, even without naming the teachers, could inadvertently identify them and violate the law. But parent Janet Atkinson said knowing how well teachers performed and contributed to the overall success of a school would be invaluable. This is especially helpful for families new to the school district or those like Atkinson who are parents of children with special needs. "I would want to know if my child was attending a school that really understands how to work with ESE students,'' said the mother of a 19-year-old Gaither High senior in the exceptional student education program. If a teacher or school struggles to advance special-needs students, said Atkinson, who works in a state program helping parents of special-needs babies, she might seek outside help or offer suggestions. "Right now, we all have to figure out what the best approach to sharing the information would be and for what purpose,'' said Stephanie Baxter-Jenkins, executive director of the Hillsborough Classroom Teachers Association. But if parents really want to know if their child's teacher is a good fit, "go volunteer,'' she said. "Go sit in the classroom.''
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