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

Ohanian Comment: In September, I provided some background on this debacle. Unmentioned is what Gates was really after: The original proposal and a 2010 timeline called for the district to fire 5 percent of its teachers each year for poor performance. That would amount to more than 700 teachers. The thinking was they would be replaced by teachers who earned entry level wages, freeing up money to pay the bonuses for those at the top.

This is right out of the Neutron Jack Welch theory of leadership: Regardless of performance, fire 10% of employees every year. This is known as a 'new commitment to excellence.' The neutron appellation came from the fact that General Electric buildings remained intact while the workforce was decimated. At Microsoft, they call this Stack Ranking:

Every current and former Microsoft employee I interviewed—every one—cited stack ranking as the most destructive process inside of Microsoft, something that drove out untold numbers of employees. The system—also referred to as "the performance model," "the bell curve," or just "the employee review"--has, with certain variations over the years, worked like this: every unit was forced to declare a certain percentage of employees as top performers, then good performers, then average, then below average, then poor.--Kurt Eichenwald, Microsoft's Lost Decade, Vanity Fair, August 2012

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:

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.

— Valerie Strauss with Ohanian comment
Washington Post Answer Sheet





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