One of VARC’s most valued partners is the Hillsborough County Public Schools District, which includes the city of Tampa, FL. VARC is in the midst of a seven-year project to produce teacher-level value-added estimates using data from several district-wide student assessments. VARC has worked closely with Dr. David Steele, Chief Information and Technology Office at the Hillsborough County School District, and Dr. Anna Brown, the district’s director of assessment for its Empowering Effective Teachers initiative, to create and implement value-added metrics to be used as part of the teacher evaluation.
Q: What are your positions in Hillsborough School District and can you describe them in a little detail?
David Steele: I’m the Chief Information Technology Officer for the district, but 90 percent of my time is spent overseeing our teacher effectiveness. My background is as a high school principal and math teacher, and at one point I was general director for secondary education. I became involved in teacher effectiveness work in 2009 and started putting it together and I’ve been in it since.
Anna Brown: I’m currently the director for assessment and performance management with our teacher effectiveness work, so I’ve managed the student achievement side of our teacher evaluation, as well as working on our dashboard and scorecards. My background is as an elementary and middle school teacher and elementary school principal. This is my first and only practical use of value added in this kind of situation. We’ve learned as we have brought this on board here in the district. I also wrote my dissertation using value-added data as a portion of my analysis. I performed a district-based focus on nationally board-certified teachers.
Q: Can you describe the district you work in?
AB: Our district has approximately 197,000 students. We evaluate approximately 15,000 instructional staff, which includes about 12,000 teachers—that’s just classroom teacher with roster-enrolled students. And then there’s an additional group of school-based instructional staff that we provide value-added calculations for, which VARC helps us on, that use school-wide data as a part of their production.
DS: We’re about 60 percent free-and-reduced-price lunch, 39% Caucasian, 31% Hispanic, and 22% African-American. In Florida, all districts are arranged by county, so we have the Tampa inner urban area, the suburbs of Tampa, and two other standalone cities. So it’s a mix of urban, and surprisingly, a lot of our area is rural.
Q: When did you first hear about value added and think about the idea of implementing it in Hillsborough?
DS: In the spring of 2009, when we started putting together this program. We had been running a state-funded teacher bonus system, but in that we used our own value tables for calculations. We did have a growth calculation for student performance for teachers but it was much less sophisticated than what we are doing now.
Q: When did you first decide to partner with VARC?
DS: During that fall, we had heard about several people across the country who were getting into value added. We met (VARC Director) Rob Meyer at conference in Washington, DC. He was giving a presentation with one of the school district he had worked with in Wisconsin. We liked what we heard and invited him to do some interviews with our staff. Honestly, it was like night and day talking with Rob versus any of the other people we talked about regarding the project. We had the teachers union involved in every step of the way, because we did not want to institute a value-added system that the union did not like. I can speak for both union and ourselves, once we met with VARC staff, we did not want to meet with anyone else because we felt like we had met the people we wanted to work with.
Q: Why did you decide to include the union from the beginning in your development of value added?
DS: It’s just been our way of work for years and years in the district. Rutgers University, two years ago, wrote a white paper on successful district-union relationships and we were featured in that. We’ve found over the years, if anything comes up, it’s much better to work cooperatively with the union.
Q: What separated VARC from the other programs you were looking at?
DS: The VARC team obviously is a leader in that field in the country. Some of the other people we talked to had just never done this on a large scale for a large school district. They had no good idea of how you would tackle non-tested subjects (subjects in which testing is not required by No Child Left Behind). And Rob (Meyer)—everyone else was talking about what they could do, and he was able to talk about what he had done. It was just the confidence and experience he brought to the table that set him apart from everyone else.
Q: What were priorities for your district when implementing value added, and what factors were considered?
DS: Obviously, the most unique one was the need to have a measure for every teacher. That’s become the major challenge, to develop fair measures across the board. Another issue is, how do you deal with teachers who have only a few test scores or subjects that have only one teacher in the entire district? I think 90 percent of our value-added concerns come from about 5 to 10 percent of our classes and teachers.
Q: Have you been satisfied with the system VARC has helped you to create? What about it would you like to improve, if anything?
AB: We’re definitely satisfied with our experience thus far. The VARC team we work with is constantly working toward improvement, which is a district value we constantly embrace. We meet weekly with the VARC team via phone conference to discuss the value-added models. That leads to our satisfaction, because it incorporates teachers’ feedback and concerns and includes more of the information they deem valuable in the model. Do we think we’re doing enough with it? I don’t think so, that’s another point on the power of our district—we never quite think we’re done and that we should sit and keep repeating it. Our district’s value of self-improvement always leads us to think about evaluating our program with an eye for how we can do it better.
DS: As an administrator, part of my responsibility is making sure everything is accurate, but another part is making sure things are done on time and deadlines are met. Last October, as we were getting ready to run all of the final reports over the weekend, (VARC team member) Nandita (Gawade) got in touch with us Friday night, saying she just thought of a better way to do Algebra 1. Well, you know, it threw off the whole timeline and delayed our report for a day, but in the long run, we appreciated that, because we’d much rather get better data out a day late. That was another example of how her attention to detail sometimes drives us a little crazy but in the long run leads to a better result.
Q: What is your advice for other districts looking to implement value added—particularly those with limited funds?
AB: Most school districts are smaller than ours, so they do struggle with human capital and the ability to dedicate individuals to this process. However, one of the things that has made our system be able to move so quickly, and allowed us to be able to offer a calculation for every teacher, is that we already had a system in place that utilized current personnel. That system had been in place for decades, and we often talk about that with other districts, that there are ways to get there without needing a new dedicated resource. But it does require a shift in thinking and changing workloads for individuals. They have to take on the responsibility to ensure that the assessments are created with some validity.
Q: Are you satisfied with your positioning compared to other school districts in regard to value added?
DS: When we go to conferences around country, many districts regard us as one of leaders in the country for value added, in evaluating teachers, and in including student measures as well as multiple measures. Some districts are ahead of us in the area of translating it to professional development and actionable data. I think we do a good job in that area, but we’re not among the leaders. That’s a place we need to catch up.
Q: Would you recommend VARC to other districts?
DS: We have had a great relationship with VARC. They are thoughtful, creative and meticulous with the work that they do. Whenever I talk about the work they’ve done for us, I always say we were lucky we found them as a partner. When you ask them to do something, you never hear, "We can’t do that." Which isn’t to say they’ll do something just because we want to do it. They’re not afraid to push back, and we like that they’ll tell us which of our tests work and which don’t. But I do think VARC’s can-do attitude has been so important in getting us comfortable with working with them. And I think together we’ve created a really great system that’s helping students in Hillsborough County get a better education.