Bill Gates spent a fortune to build it. Now a Florida school system is getting rid of it.
by Valerie Strauss
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.
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:
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 didnĂ˘€™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:
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:
Well, it didn't take that long to know what isn't working.
Valerie Strauss with Ohanian comment
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