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L.A. charter schools win Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation grant

November 19, 2009 | 10:15 am

A consortium of Los Angeles-area charter schools has won a $60-million grant to develop a new teacher evaluation system based at least partly on student test scores. The grant, part of $335 million in related awards announced today by the Seattle-based Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, represents the largest private funding for an initiative of this sort.

The local winners are five charter management organizations that specialize in opening schools that serve low-income minority communities. The charter companies are Alliance for College-Ready Public Schools, Green Dot Public Schools, ICEF Public Schools, PUC Schools and Aspire Public Schools. All are based in Southern California except Aspire, which is headquartered in Oakland and expanding its L.A.-area operations.

All the grant winners have agreed to explore teacher-evaluation systems that are data-oriented. The other  recipients are school districts: $100 million for the Hillsborough County Public Schools in Florida; $90 million for the Memphis City Schools in Tennessee and $40 million for the Pittsburgh Public Schools in Pennsylvania. An additional $45 million will be used to enroll and gather data from 3,700 teachers across the country.

The L.A.-area charter schools together serve more than 28,000 students, more than the Pittsburgh school system.

“We are convinced that in order to dramatically improve education in America, we must first ensure that every student has an effective teacher in every subject, every school year,” Melinda Gates said in a release. The grant winners “have shown extraordinary commitment to tackling one of the most important educational issues of our time.”
Linking teacher evaluation to student performance -- sometimes referred to as a “merit pay” system -- has been controversial. Teacher unions have historically opposed such efforts as unfair, given the outside factors that affect a student’s performance.

But the Obama administration, which was elected with the support of teachers unions, has been pushing for more objective measures of teacher effectiveness, and some union leaders have gradually shifted positions. They say they are willing to consider such measures as long as they are not based solely on test scores and provided that they fully take into account factors outside of a teacher’s control.

The Gates Foundation news release, in fact, includes commendations of the current initiative from the leaders of nation’s two largest teachers unions, the National Education Assn. and the American Federation of Teachers. 

“We firmly believe that in order to have a good understanding of effective teaching we need multiple measures,” said Gates spokesman Christopher Williams, adding, “a teacher is the most important school-based factor in student achievement. We want research that helps the field better understand what makes a great teacher. What does great teaching look like and how do you measure it?”

Answering these questions will allow schools to hire the best teachers, train them more effectively and retain them longer in the classroom, he said. Among the ideas on trial will be extending the time before a teacher earns tenure, linking tenure to student achievement and connecting a substantial raise in pay to a tenure system based on student achievement. Williams said.

In California, credentialed teachers earn tenure after two years. Firing ineffective tenured teachers is a difficult, multi-step process that typically takes many years if it happens at all, experts have said.

Charter schools are independently managed and exempt from many rules governing traditional schools, including adherence to a school district’s union contracts. The local charters, most of them nonunion, do not offer tenure; teachers typically work on annual contracts. Critics cite instances in which teachers have lost their jobs because they challenged practices at some charter schools.

The grant marks the most significant collaboration yet between different charter-school organizations in California, although charters already have effectively rallied together to push political and policy objectives.

-- Howard Blume

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