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School & District Management

Pittsburgh Details Plans for Gates Teacher-Effectiveness Grant

November 10, 2009 3 min read

As most of you know, Pittsburgh is one of five four finalists in line to get big dough from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation for its plans to upgrade teacher quality in the district. (Omaha ducked out of the competition last week after learning the most it would receive from Gates would be $50 million for a plan that the district says will cost $65 million).

Last week at the Strategic Management of Human Capital conference here in Washington, I sat in on part of a presentation by Pittsburgh’s deputy superintendent, Linda Lane, and John Tarka, the president of the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers, as the pair explained their $85 million, multifaceted strategy. (Gates is expected to announce how the $500 million will be parceled out to the three school districts and coalition of Los Angeles charter schools later this month).

Pittsburgh has set a districtwide goal of improving students’ college readiness to 50 percent by 2014, up from 29 percent this year. The district defined college readiness by looking at the number of students who scored at the advanced level on state math exams in 2008. Getting students to college undergirds Pittsburgh’s entire proposal because of the city’s “Pittsburgh Promise,” a scholarship program that guarantees $5,000 a year for four years of college to students who maintain a 2.5 grade point average and an 85 percent attendance rate.

To get there, the district and the PFT have developed a menu of strategies to increase teacher effectiveness. At the center of it all is a new evaluation system that the district and union created jointly and have put in place in nearly half of the schools this fall. Teachers will be judged on multiple factors and by multiple people, though principals will remain the primary evaluators. In high schools, for example, some evaluations will include feedback from experts in a teacher’s content area.

Labor and management have also committed to craft a performance-pay program that will be bargained.

“It’s got to take more than a test score into account,” Tarka said. “We’ve got to design something valid, equitable, and transparent, and [that] makes teachers feel like they can influence their own pay.”

Other pieces of Pittsburgh’s plan include a differentiation of roles for teachers and additional pay for those who take on those roles. For example, Lane said, the district will develop a 9th and 10th grade “teacher excellence corps” that aims to change the culture in the city’s high schools by putting the best teachers in front of the youngest high school kids, who are the most vulnerable to dropping out. Those teachers would stay with the students through their freshman and sophomore years.

“We want the prestige to be attached to working with the most vulnerable kids,” Lane said.

The district and union have also agreed to create an intensive approach to grooming new teachers who are hired to teach mathematics, English, science, and special education. Those novices will go through a year-long induction process that will include pairing them with experienced educators in high-needs schools for several months before they are assigned to their own classrooms.

Tenure, Lane said, will no longer be automatically granted at a teacher’s three-year anniversary. “We are going to make it a milestone.”

One audience member asked Tarka and Lane how they’ve been able to strike such a collegial, collaborative tone between labor and management over what are usually combative issues.

“Never surprise your union,” Lane said. And Tarka, who said there’s still plenty of tension to work through, particularly over a pay-for-performance program, gave props to Lane’s trustworthiness before issuing a warning to the audience of officials from other school districts whom he surmised might be eyeing her.

“You all stay away from her,” Tarka said.

ADDENDUM: Word is starting to spread about Pittsburgh’s Board Watch, a good governance program that has been up and running in the city since January. I profiled their work recently in our Leading for Learning report. Board Watch is comprised of trained volunteers who attend all school board meetings and grade the members on how they adhere to the district’s goals and stay focused on policy. If you’d like to see a Board Watch-like group emerge in your school district, you can learn how the folks in Pittsburgh did it in a free Webinar on Nov. 18 at 4 p.m. Eastern. Here’s a link to register for the event.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the District Dossier blog.

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