That Didn't Quite Go As Planned: Looking Back at a Huge Gates Ed Grant in Tampa

Nothing generates excitement in large public school systems like the announcement of a major grant-funded program that will pump millions of dollars into a district to support a new push to improve student achievement and college readiness. But in the backs of the minds of school superintendents and their chief financial officers is the problem of how to keep those initiatives going once the grant funding ends.

This gives rise to additional questions: What if the program's costs are higher than originally projected? What if the funder doesn't deliver all of the funding expected? What will all this mean for the school district's budget and its financial reserves? All of these questions have no doubt weighed heavily on the minds of officials in the Hillsborough County Public Schools, which serves the Tampa Bay area.

In September, the Tampa Bay Times reported that a seven-year, $100 million grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to put better teachers in classrooms through a more rigorous teacher evaluation system tying pay to student performance is costing millions more than projected, forcing the district to dip into its reserves. What's more, the paper reported that Gates is spending less on the project than initially expected. Because the system of tying teacher pay to supervisor evaluations and student scores on standardized tests is now Florida law, Hillsborough County schools must continue funding the program past the Gates funding cycle, which ends in 2017.

Hillsborough, the eighth-largest school system in the nation, has long enjoyed a reputation as an innovative district — a factor in Gates' selection of Hillsborough in 2009 for the program, known as Empowering Effective Teachers (EET). To get the funding from Gates, Hillsborough committed to raising $100 million in matching funds for an effort to mentor, support, and motivate teachers as Hillsborough schools, like many across the country, adopted the Common Core State Standards, another Gates-supported effort.

Six years later, however, some Hillsborough County school officials and school board members may be experiencing buyer's remorse, despite initial excitement at the program's potential, thanks to the escalating costs. Susan Valdes, the school board's chairwoman, told the paper that while she was excited about the program, she has long been concerned about its rising costs. Reports cited by the Times estimate the program's total costs to date at more than $270 million, some $70 million more than the combined $200 million in funding from Gates and matching dollars raised by the district. Further, the newspaper reported that Gates is paying only $80 million toward the program.

While some Hillsborough officials remain committed to the program and caution against the conclusion that it has become too costly, there is little debate that the relationship between the school system and the funder has been occasionally bumpy. The funder declined some of the school system's funding requests, citing language in the original agreement stating that Gates would pay "up to" $100 million, not necessarily the full amount. The district shouldered the unpaid costs.

The Times reported that a factor in the disagreement over funding resulted from Gates' taking a step back from tying teacher pay to student performance through value-added statistical models. A 2014 study in the refereed journal Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis found little or no correlation between the content and quality of teacher instruction and value-added measures of teacher performance. The study found instances in which teachers who received high marks from surveys and supervisor observations had students who scored poorly on tests, and vice versa.

The study, by the way, was funded by the Gates Foundation.

In a summer 2014 letter to partners, Gates' education director, Vicki Phillips, stated that the funder does not believe standardized tests should be the sole measure of teacher performance, and that new academic standards need time to work. Teachers need more time to develop lessons, get used to new tests, and offer feedback before assessment scores are applied to teacher evaluations. Believing that a "rushed" system of applying test scores to teacher evaluations could end up punishing teachers, Gates concluded that test results should not be factored into decisions on teacher evaluation for the next two years. "Let's take the time needed to get it right," Phillips wrote in the letter's closing.

The backlash against the use of value-added models (VAM) was not, however, limited to the funder. The American Statistical Association urged states and school systems not to use VAM systems as a basis for personnel decisions.

Bad news: many states, including Florida, had already passed new teacher accountability laws that do just that.

As the Gates funding for Hillsborough County Schools' program nears its end, district officials are looking for ways to reduce costs while continuing the teacher evaluation and compensation system. While there may be no single party to blame for the situation, it should be instructive to school systems seeking to enact sweeping changes and especially to policymakers who, in a push for more accountability, enact unproven new policies without due diligence.