Top US education official praises Hillsborough Schools
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10/14/10 Kate Bradshaw
WMNF Drive-Time News Thursday | Listen to this entire show:

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Most people agree that public schools in the US aren’t exactly churning out a high number of rocket scientists each year. What they can’t agree on is how to boost student success. The top education official in the country was in Tampa today showering praise on Hillsborough County public schools, which he says have been taking on all of the tough challenges facing schools.

Over one million students drop out of high school in the US each year. During a Tampa visit today, US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said this traps those who fail to complete their secondary education in a painful cycle.

The buzzword at today’s roundtable meeting at Rampello Downtown Partnership School was ‘collaboration.’ Duncan said Hillsborough Public Schools, with the help of a $200 million Gates foundation grant, is developing a more innovative approach to education through inviting all stakeholders to the table.

US Representative Kathy Castor, whose district encompasses part of Hillsborough County, says she hopes what the district has been doing over the past few years will spark nationwide reform.

Duncan says he hopes to hold a national conference on education reform that focuses on the relationship between school districts and teachers’ unions, and he wants to use Hillsborough as an example.

They spoke after a roundtable session with district teachers, parents, mentors, and the heads of local and national teachers’ unions. Participants often remarked on how uncommon it is for such parties to sit at one table. American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten says collaboration helps educators develop a better understanding of what it means to be a teacher.

So what else is the district doing differently? One key element of the new program is targeting schools with the highest need. Another is boosting accountability through transparency. The other, which has been the elephant in the room for some time, is basing teacher assessments largely on student performance. Hillsborough County Public Schools Superintendent Mary Ellen Elia says this is one way to “professionalize” role of teachers.

Critics say the new program relies too heavily on student standardized test scores in evaluating teachers. The Gates program bases 40% of every teacher assessment on student performance. Education Secretary Arne Duncan says school districts nationwide could learn a lot from districts like Hillsborough, but some might point out that not all school districts have $202 million of Gates grant money at their disposal. Duncan says cash-strapped districts can look into other funding sources.

Like many education grants, the Gates grant is competitive. National Education Association President Dennis Von Roekel, who also participated in the roundtable, is a critic of such grants. In an interview with WMNF’s Sean Kinane in late August, he said such monies don’t make for a level playing field among school districts.

Von Roekel is also a critic of weakening hard caps on class size. Schools around the state are dealing with the hard caps for class size that voters adopted in 2002. Hillsborough Superintendent Mary Ellen Elia will hold a news conference tomorrow morning to discuss the district’s efforts to comply with the new class size restrictions. It will take place at the School Administrative Center in Tampa.

Listen to parts one and two of WMNF's interview with National Education Association President Dennis Von Roekel.

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