Bill Gates lauds city's steps to improve schools

Calls teacher's contract model to renew profession

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With its recently adopted teacher performance initiatives, the Pittsburgh school district offers a model for other U.S. teachers and administrators who are working together to improve public education, Microsoft Corp. Chairman Bill Gates said Saturday.

Mr. Gates lauded key aspects of the collective bargaining agreement the city school district recently reached with the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers as "the kinds of changes that can renew the profession of teaching." He spoke in Seattle during the national convention of the American Federation of Teachers.

Specifically, he cited two bonus programs woven into the five-year contract that introduced merit pay for teachers in city public schools.

"In Pittsburgh, they're creating incentives for highly effective teachers to go into low-performing schools. In certain schools, if students have better-than-expected gains in learning, their teachers earn additional pay," he said.

"In another program, teachers will work as a team with a group of incoming ninth-graders and stay with those kids for two years. If at the end of 10th grade the kids are on track for college, the whole team will get a bonus."

Mr. Gates said he hopes these initiatives will serve as a model for other school districts if they prove to be effective in improving academic results and earning appreciation from teachers in Pittsburgh.

"It stuns me that this work wasn't done many years ago. I am very impressed with [Pittsburgh Public Schools Superintendent Mark Roosevelt]," Mr. Gates said in a telephone interview after his speech.

He said he was similarly impressed by John Tarka, president of the city teachers union, after meeting him Saturday. Both Pittsburgh educators have shown a willingness to be bold and ambitious, he said.

Mr. Gates -- whose Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has financed education reform initiatives across the country over the last decade -- was an unusual keynote speaker for the union gathering. Teachers in the past have expressed antipathy for foundation initiatives, which have supported the concept of performance-based evaluations and challenged tenure-related pay.

In his speech, Mr. Gates said he doesn't believe teachers should be victims of innovation in the nation's schools. Instead, they should be partners and leaders of changes that could stanch mediocrity and failure in American public education.

"Great teachers shouldn't have to leave the classroom to advance their careers," Mr. Gates said.

He also acknowledged that the foundation's efforts to reform education have not always been successful, pointing to an early push to make high schools smaller. Although some schools showed strong improvement, he said, the results of that effort were generally disappointing.

Now the Gates Foundation's strategy is to focus funding on enhancing effective teaching and using technology to evaluate and measure improvement in teaching methods and schools.

Pittsburgh is one of three school districts -- the others are Hillsborough County, Fla., and Memphis, Tenn. -- and a group of charter schools in Los Angeles that received grants from the foundation last year to implement programs designed to enhance effectiveness.

With the $40 million grant from the foundation, the city school district has committed itself -- specifically in the teachers contract -- to such initiatives as the Empowering Effective Teachers plan that aim to change how teachers are hired, nurtured, evaluated and paid.

Still, only teachers hired after July 1 will be fully covered by the merit pay plan.

Approximately 2, 900 teachers now working in the district will be affected only to the extent of their willingness to participate in performance-based bonus programs and a new career ladder, which includes six positions offering salary increases between $9,300 and $13,300.

The district will have to raise another $40 million to fully implement the effective-teaching plan. Administrators and union officials agree they still have unanswered questions to settle -- among them developing a fair and equitable method of evaluating teachers.

Mr. Roosevelt and Mr. Tarka said they welcomed Mr. Gates' attention to their work, noting that they have had to overcome entrenched distrust of each other as leaders of factions that have not always seen eye-to-eye.

"So far, our ability to work together is because of the fact that [Mr. Tarka] and I made a decision early on that we would not bicker," Mr. Roosevelt said. "Instead, we have been able to build a relationship of mutual respect realizing that we all have the same goal, which is to raise student achievement."

For his part, Mr. Tarka said the union realizes "we cannot let these reforms take effect without us. We are the ones in the classroom."


Karamagi Rujumba: krujumba@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1719.


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