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Smart Cities: Lessons from Tampa (Part 2)

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Tampa area districts serve more than 300,000 students but don't get much national attention. The most widely covered education story from Tampa-St. Pete area is the grant-funded improvements to the Hillsborough teacher evaluation system (see Smart Cities: The Hillsborough Leadership Story).

In January, Emily Douglas from Battelle reviewed the Measures of Effective Teaching Study that Hillsborough participated in and noted six key findings:

  • Great teaching CAN be measured: "The data show that we can identify groups of teachers who are more effective in helping students learn.
  • Teachers need meaningful feedback to grow, so provide it: "Student perception surveys and classroom observations can provide meaningful feedback to teachers.
  • Observations should be done by multiple reviewers, multiple times: Shorter, more frequent observations from two or more observers per teacher provide a more reliable snapshot of true teacher performance than a single, longer observation.
  • Building processes that increase trust and fairness will result in better data: Having detailed, communicated processes when it comes to evaluations and student surveys, as well as rigorous training and testing of observers against a set of standards or expectations increases data quality.
  • Surveying students? Ensure Confidentiality: Student survey data becomes more reliable when students feel that they are able to provide anonymous feedback.
  • Utilize multiple measures when building teacher evaluation or performance index formulas: "Compared with schemes that heavily weight one measure, those that assign 33 percent to 50 percent of the weight to student achievement gains achieve more consistency, avoid the risk of encouraging too narrow a focus on any one aspect of teaching.

Hillsborough schools. After three consecutive overall "A" grades based on Florida's grading system, Hillsborough slipped from A to B in 2012.

In the last decade Hillsborough schools made big gains in the number of students earning Advanced Placement scores of 3 or better particularly among underrepresented minorities.

Ask superintendent MaryEllen Elia which schools are doing interesting work and she'll mention:

  • Single Gender Academies. In 2011 Hillsborough established single gender schools - the Boys Preparatory Academy at Franklin Middle School, and the Girls Preparatory Academy at Ferrell Middle School. The students wear uniforms and each student is provided with an iPad to work with at school. The dramatic increases in test scores in just two years has been very exciting.
  • 38 magnet schools including four International Baccalaureate (IB) high schools.
  • Middleton High School. After a few years struggling academically, this inner city school has become a bio-med magnet with an award-winning robotics team, which has competed against college level teams nationally and internationally.
  • Walker Middle School. Many faculty members are interested in using videotaping as a new source of professional development at this pre-IB magnet.

Hillsborough County has 46 charter schools, although few are high performing. Charter Schools USA, headquartered in Ft. Lauderdale, operator of 48 charter schools on 45 campuses in five states including 37 charter schools in Florida and three in Hillsborough:Henderson Hammock, Winthrop, and Woodmont.

Two hours south of Tampa there is a city that runs a charter network, the City of Cape Coral Charter School Authority. Launched in 2003, it came after the Indianapolis mayor won the right to charter and paved the way for innovations like the Rhode Island Mayoral Academies (discussed last week).

Pinellas County is a 40 mile long peninsula on the Gulf stretching from Tarpon Springs to St. Petersburg. Pinellas County Schools serve 104,000 students, about half the size of the district across Tampa Bay. But that still equates to an $800 million annual operating budget.

Michael Grego, who started his career as a teacher in Hillsborough, has been superintendent for a year. Pinellas dropped from B to C on the state rating system during the last school year.

As has been the case statewide, there has been significant improvement in grad rates in last four years. Like Hillsborough, Pinellas has increased the percentage of students taking AP courses, but Grego complained about the new Florida law that allows students to take as many AP courses as they can handle arguing that it could cost the district as much as $60 million.

St. Petersburg College is offering a free online " Get Ready For College" math course. A about 850 students from across Florida enrolled. Pinellas County Schools is working with SPC to make the program more accessible to high school students, said Judith Vigue, the school district's director of advanced studies and academic excellence.

A decade ago Pinellas was a national leader in TQM and ran a Quality Academy to train other districts in the tools of continuous improvement. Evidence of a commitment to execution and improvement remains evident in a highly structured strategic plan.

Last year there was a 28 percent increase in enrollment in public charter schools .

Four new charters will open next month bringing the county's total to 22, only four of which are high performing.

Pinellas Virtual School offers full and part time enrollment to a couple hundred students.

Speaking of online learning, a new Florida funding formula has resulted in pre-enrollments reduction of one third for Florida Virtual School. The formula reduced the subsidy to FLVS and provides fractional portable funding that increased the net cost to districts for kids taking FLVS courses. It looks like districts are (sadly and illegally) counseling kids away from this important option.

Lessons. The longevity of the Hillsborough leadership and the comprehensive preparation it afforded a leader like MaryEllen Elia were made possible by stable and effective governance. Relatively common in small districts and charter management organizations, the stability in Hillsborough--like Payzant's tenure in Boston--combined with a drive for improvement led to a relatively high functioning organization.

Districts and charters seldom collaborate and generally compete for students in Florida-- where there are noportfolio districts or compact cities. It may be because Florida's countywide districts are so large and, while charters are numerous, enrollment is still relatively low percentage of the total.

Making educator evaluations more effective requires and strong trust-based relationships and a good deal of political capital. The key lesson from Hillsborough is, "Create a sense of urgency rooted in student learning."

Disclosure: FLVS is Getting Smart Advocacy Partner.

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