Los Angeles-area charter schools have won a $60-million grant to develop a teacher-evaluation system based at least partly on student test scores. The grant, part of $335 million in related awards announced Thursday by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, represents the largest private funding for an initiative of this sort.
"Teachers matter more to student achievement, more than any other factor inside our school building," Melinda Gates said. "This is something we know absolutely for certain at this point."
The local winners are five charter management organizations that specialize in serving low-income minority communities. They are Alliance for College-Ready Public Schools, Green Dot Public Schools, ICEF Public Schools, PUC Schools and Aspire Public Schools.
Charter schools are independently operated, exempt from some rules that govern traditional schools, including adherence to a school district's union contracts.
The other recipients are Hillsborough County Public Schools in Florida, $100 million; Memphis City Schools in Tennessee, $90 million; and Pittsburgh Public Schools in Pennsylvania, $40 million. An additional $45 million will be used to gather data from 3,700 teachers across the country.
The L.A.-area charters together serve more than 28,000 students, more than the Pittsburgh school system.
Teacher unions have opposed linking test scores to teacher evaluations, given all the variables that affect a student's performance. But the Obama administration, which was elected with teacher-union support, has pushed for objective measures of teacher effectiveness, and some union leaders have gradually shifted positions. The Gates foundation news release includes commendations from national union leaders.
United Teachers Los Angeles President A.J. Duffy said he has no objections to research, provided that there was no pre-ordained agenda. However, he opposes current legislation aimed at improving the state's eligibility for up to $700 million in the federal Race to the Top competitive grants.
Duffy said it exacerbates an over-reliance on test scores and creates mandates without providing lasting resources. The bill also removes limits on the number of charters that Duffy would prefer to keep in place.
In contrast, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger urged the Assembly to act more quickly in approving reform legislation at a Thursday appearance with education, civil rights and business leaders in the library of Sixth Avenue Elementary in Los Angeles.
"The fate of hundreds of millions of dollars for California schools rests in the hands of the state Assembly," he said.
In line with federal goals, the governor has signed legislation abolishing a "firewall" between student data and teacher evaluation.
L.A. schools Supt. Ramon C. Cortines urged unions not to use their clout to block change.
The Gates money, for example, will test extending the time before a teacher earns tenure and linking tenure and pay raises to achievement.
"We want research that helps the field better understand what makes a great teacher," said Gates spokesman Christopher Williams.
The Alliance charters have experimented with school-wide bonuses for student attendance and test scores.
The grant will further efforts to reward successful teachers, said Chief Executive Judy Burton. She said a student's progress over a year might count toward 40% of an evaluation.
"We'll work with our teachers to design what we mean by teacher effectiveness and how we'll measure it," Burton said.