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Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Florida's teachers are growing tired of the Gates initiative

From the St. Petersburg Times

by Marlene Sokol

TAMPA — Renee Kelly retired at 55 from her job teaching law at Riverview High School.

Leaving early lowered her pension, she said. But she couldn't stomach changes under the new Gates-funded system of teacher evaluations. "We've been made out to be good guys against the bad guys," she said.

Kelly is posting her views on websites and Facebook pages, and she isn't alone. In recent weeks, questions and complaints about the multimillion-dollar, seven-year Empowering Effective Teachers effort have grown more visible.

An East Bay High School English teacher has created an EET Concerns Facebook page with posts like: "I teach the best I can every day and when someone else is in my classroom, it throws my kids and me way off."

The site has 42 members, though not all are school district employees.

Then there's, launched by Joseph Thomas, the Newsome High School social studies teacher who rejected his peer evaluator and almost lost his job.

At first, Thomas' blog contained posts exclusively by him. At last count, there were 15 members. And Thomas is running for union president.

To be sure, this is not an insurrection. The district has more than 12,000 teachers, and in a survey released by the district between 80 and 96 percent responding favorably to a list of 13 questions about the Gates effort.

School board members generally say they're getting positive and negative feedback about the system, which combines evaluations from the principal and a peer with a data component that measures student performance.

At last week's board meeting, member April Griffin touched off a long discussion when she described a teacher who felt it was unfair that she was observed in the week before the winter break.

Weeks earlier, member Stacy White voiced strong opposition to the whole process, calling it demoralizing and counterproductive. Since then, teachers have been writing to him to express their dissatisfaction.

One said she was rattled when a student misbehaved during the peer observation and that the whole experience made her feel inadequate. Another complained that children who could barely speak English were asked to articulate what they had learned.

David Steele, who oversees the project funded with $100 million from Bill and Melinda Gates, said, "it's not surprising at all that when you completely change a system as radically as we have, you'll see a group of people who don't agree.

"Unfortunately, in a system this large, if 10 percent don't like it, that's like 1,200 people."

For the most part, teachers say they like the mentoring component and there are few complaints about the data component that makes up 40 percent of their score. It's the peer evaluations that are drawing complaints from teachers who say their evaluators scrutinize them for flaws and take classroom events out of context.

Turner Elementary School gifted teacher Susan Hopper, who also has a blog, said she was marked down for safety after a student stumbled over a book.

Hopper said she was appalled when her school recruited a "cheerleader" to encourage teachers to support the initiative.

"My school has always been a happy place," said Hopper, 43, who also plans to retire early. "I've never seen my teacher friends so stressed out and sad. And these are fantastic teachers."

Pamela Allison, a math teacher at Robinson High School, said that although she scored well enough for a bonus under the state's Merit Awards Program, she lost points because a child looked confused.

"Stacy White had it right," she wrote. "Our morale is very low, and many of us have given up on the evaluation system."

Classroom Teachers Association president Jean Clements acknowledged some teachers are struggling. "We all expected that this would be a difficult time," she said. For one thing, the learning curve is enormous. "There are Q&As all over the place."

Teachers can read books and watch videos to study up on what evaluators want to see. Some rehearse the process with other teachers. "It's never enough," said Clements, who has told administrators, "we have not given teachers enough time to plan well."

Criticized by some as a cheerleader herself, Clements said there are advisory boards and committees for teachers to provide feedback.

Still, there are questions of transparency.

Karen Colton, a math teacher at Jefferson High School, said she became concerned when she realized no one in her department had scored highly enough to earn the state bonus.

She wondered: Was it because Jefferson's students as a whole do not perform well on math tests? "Or maybe the math teachers at Jefferson High School aren't very good."

State records show Jefferson's 10th-graders this year scored near the bottom of the district in the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test. And Colton acknowledged teachers in her department rarely earn the bonus.

She had hoped things would change, as the district asserts it now measures teachers against those with similar students.

"I know they are trying so hard to make it fair," Colton said. "I would feel fine if I could see all the data."

Despite those questions, Colton said her experience has been good. "It was a real evaluation that we didn't used to do," she said. "It's complex, but they offer a lot of training."

But she said co-workers are anxious and afraid to speak out. "I don't know why the climate is like that," she said. When they see her name in the newspaper, "they'll all think I'm crazy."

Reach Marlene Sokol at (813) 226-3356 or

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