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Winners Named for Gates Teacher Grants

By Stephen Sawchuk — November 19, 2009 5 min read
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Three school districts and one charter school consortium will receive a cut of $290 million in grants from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to implement plans to reshape key aspects of the teaching profession, including evaluation, compensation, and professional development, the Seattle-based nonprofit organization has announced.

Hillsborough County, Fla.; Memphis, Tenn.; Pittsburgh, and a group of five charter school networks in Los Angeles won awards ranging from $40 million to $100 million. The funding is one piece of the foundation’s $500 million overall strategy to study, define, and promote effective teaching.

Each of the sites that made the final cut devised its application in collaboration with teachers, reflecting what Gates officials, in an interview, called “unprecedented” support from the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, as well as from local teacher associations.

“It is very exciting to have this opportunity to do things in a way we never could have afforded to do before,” said Jean Clements, the president of the Hillsborough Classroom Teachers Association, which is affiliated with both national unions.

“There was no point in thinking about an alternate compensation schedule before this grant came along, because we didn’t have the support to make it work or the tools to make it credible or the money to implement it,” she continued. “Now, we have that opportunity.”

It is an opportunity, district officials acknowledge, that will come with much scrutiny from national policymakers and the media, and with that scrutiny, pressure to deliver on the promise of the plans.

Recipients

Hillsborough County, Fla.
Grant: $100 million
Students: 191,000
Eligible for free or reduced-price lunch: 57%

Pittsburgh
Grant: $40 million
Students: 26,100
Eligible for free or reduced-price lunch: 70%

Memphis, Tenn.
Grant: $90 million
Students: 109,000
Eligible for free or reduced-price lunch: 83%

College Ready Promise, Los Angeles
Five charter-management groups: Alliance College Ready Public Schools, Aspire Public Schools, Green Dot Public Schools, ICEF Public Schools, and Partnerships to Uplift Communities
Grant: $60 million
Students: 30,000
Eligible for free or reduced-price lunch: 78%

Source: Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

“We are humbled by the enormity of the work,” said Memphis schools Superintendent Kriner Cash. “It has never been done before with this level of depth and comprehensiveness. But in the end, we believe high-value teachers create high-value students.”

Ready to Engage

Details about the finalists and their plans began to leak as several districts sought approval for the plans from their school boards. But the Gates Foundation did not confirm that it had signed agreements with those sites until Nov. 19.

One finalist, Omaha, Neb., chose to pull out of the competition, citing financial constraints.

The final four sites differ in their overall scope and goals of their plans, but they do share some common elements. Each will begin by setting out a definition of effective teaching, crafting a new system for evaluating teachers on a combination of measures, and offering personalized feedback to teachers based on the results.

“These sites share in common a really important desire to ensure teachers have the kind of ongoing access to professional supports and feedback that helps them do their best every time they step in the classroom,” said Vicki L. Phillips, the director of the Gates Foundation’s education efforts. “In essence, I think this is as much about ongoing improvement as anything else.”

Then, the districts will link compensation initiatives, new professional opportunities for teachers, and incentives to get effective teachers to move to and stay in hard-to-staff schools to the evaluation system.

In Pittsburgh, the district’s overall goal is to focus on boosting the number of high school graduates who are ready for college. Once its new teacher-evaluation system is in place, the 26,100-student district will begin an “excellence corps” of highly effective teachers who will be responsible for following cohorts of students through 9th and 10th grades and ensuring they are making academic growth toward graduation.

The 191,000-student Hillsborough County system will tie the tenure-granting process to demonstration of effective teaching and will require more teachers to serve a probationary fourth year beyond the normal three-year period. Strengthening the tenure requirement will help make the milestone, at which teachers gain their due-process rights, a more meaningful one, Ms. Clements said.

And in Memphis, the grant will couple an overhauled hiring system with a retention program designed to keep new highly effective teachers in their schools. Such teachers, including those hired through the Teach For America program, could earn up to $6,000 if they stay for three years or more, Superintendent Cash said.

Initially scheduled for five years, the foundation’s grants will now be disbursed over a period of six to seven years to allow the sites to gradually roll out, pilot, and tweak their plans. The longer timeline could be crucial to helping the districts work through implementation challenges and to keeping the work on track, site officials said.

Mr. Cash, for instance, noted that the 109,000-student Memphis district will need approval from the Tennessee legislature to use the state’s value-added data system for novice teachers and to help guide the performance-pay programs. And in districts with collectively bargained contracts, union membership will need to ratify changes affecting teachers.

Sharing Results

The Gates Foundation’s focus on effective teaching predates the federal economic-stimulus legislation, particularly the competition for $4 billion in grants from the Race to the Top Fund, which puts a similar focus on teacher effectiveness and has rocketed the issue onto the national policy stage.

Although it is not yet clear how the Gates grants would jell with any Race to the Top awards—Florida and Tennessee are both said to be top contenders in that competition—Ms. Phillips said she hopes that the federal stimulus will supplement the four sites’ work.

“The convergence here has the potential to be really powerful,” she said.

And for stakeholders that hope to learn from the results, a major aspect of the Gates project will be in sharing information both internally among the grantees and with the public as project benchmarks set in each of the sites are attained.

That information will be supplemented by Gates’ $45 million multidistrict study to gauge the strengths of various measures of teacher effectiveness.

Foundation officials added that diversity among the final sites in terms of geographic location, density, population of students served, school type, and union affiliation will also provide insights about the scalability of the reforms in many types of districts.

“We’re really struck by the sort of variations in this portfolio that will allow us to tease out what some of the critical issues are,” Ms. Phillips said. “As these sites are successful, and we’re convinced they will be, it will be hard for [other districts] to say, ‘It can’t be done here.’ ”

A version of this article appeared in the December 02, 2009 edition of Education Week as Gates Picks Winners of Grants to Improve Teacher Effectiveness

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