Smart Cities: The Hillsborough Leadership Story

High performing organizations grow their own leaders. A lack of political stability makes that unusual in urban American education–but Hillsborough, Florida is a great exception.

MaryEllen Elia has been the superintendent of the Hillsborough County Public Schools for eight years–only the fourth superintendent in 50 years. In preparation, she held just about every job in the central office, “I had a number of jobs that crossed over divisions: instructional, nontraditional programs, summer school, elementary, high school, transportation, food service, data, assessment, and facilities,” said Elia.

For decades, Hillsborough superintendents have been “purposeful in creating wide range of experiences for leaders–it really helps,” said Elia.

Her extraordinary preparation required remarkable political stability.  She said the key in a word is relationships:

Historically, our superintendents and leadership teams have come up through the system and have served in several roles during their decades-long careers. As a result they have built relationships along the way. That makes a qualitative difference in their interactions with district employees, board members, community leaders, union leaders, etc. Those relationships establish a foundation of trust that makes it possible to successfully undertake major initiatives.

Leadership longevity starts with the school board. “We currently have two Board member who have served for more than 20 years, and one who is nearing 20 years,” said Elia. But that is likely to change with the potential for significant turnover in the next few years.

Elia has a hands-on style, “I’m very involved in what’s going on.”  She tries to “break down the silos across the divisions.” Eight area superintendents support 266 schools serving 200,000 students.

On the risk of a top-down culture, Elia said, “We are strong implementers because we listen to people; we meet constantly to get feedback and are very involved in the community.”

Relationships with employee groups are very strong due to continuity of leadership in district as well as employee groups.  “Employees feel loyalty to the district, the schools and the kids,” said Elia.  “We are problem solvers, we work through issues before they get to be a big a deal,” explained Elia, “No one is perfect–we check into problems thoroughly.” She said district leadership talks to employee groups almost every day.

Empowering Effective Teachers. “I’m a teacher,” said Elia, who came to Hillsborough as a teacher in 1986.  “Teachers need to be the best they can be and constantly trying to improve,” explained Elia about the decision to revamp teacher evaluation.

In 2010, Hillsborough launched an updated teacher evaluation system–Empowering Effective Teachers (EET)–including peer and mentor evaluations, principal evaluation, and student learning gains using value-added measures. As a case study explains, “These multiple measures of teacher effectiveness represented a significant break from the former evaluation system, which relied solely on principal input.”

Teachers are observed at least three times per year–a big change from a time when tenured teachers required observation once every three years.  The new observation rubric, based on Charlotte Danielson’s work, offered a fuller view of teachers’ effects on student learning, with four performance ratings across four domains detailed in 22 individual components.

“Our teacher mentoring program is by far the facet of EET that excites us the most,” said Elia.  First and second year teachers are assigned a full-release mentor who guides them through the start of their career.  “Our retention of first year teachers has risen from 72% (before mentors) to 86% in the first year, and then up to 94% after the second year.”

“Though our new evaluations have gotten a lot of attention, we’re also excited about how we have matched professional development to our evaluation and observation results to better meet the needs of our teachers,” said Elia. “Our PD offerings are directly aligned with the observation rubric, providing that direct linkage between the evaluations and the process of improving as a professional.”

In 2010, Hillsborough also revamped principal evaluations adding student achievement, a 360-degree survey, school climate metrics, and evaluation of teachers. Teacher and principals will soon have access to actionable, real-time student data on their desktop.

Administrative hiring has also been updated with grant support.  EdWeek notes that questions for prospective principals in job interviews are now scripted and all candidates are now asked the same questions and scored on the same rubric.

Elia and her team outlined six steps that district leaders can follow as they develop and implement teacher and principal evaluations:

1. Build a foundation of board-district-union shared leadership.

2. Create a sense of urgency rooted in student learning.

3. Establish a high-capacity executive team composed of respected district leaders.

4. Include teachers and principals in every phase of the work.

5. Communicate clearly and constantly through multiple channels.

6. Incorporate learnings from implementation quickly.

“We need to create positive leaders,” said Elia, “that support excellence in teachers.  We need teachers who find out what they can do to get better and then work to get better.”

Hillsborough hires 500 to 800 teachers every year. They strive to get better at hiring and developing teachers. “We don’t have it figured out yet, we’re constantly surveying teachers” see find ways to improve.

The district is negotiating a new salary schedule with a big pay bump for highly effective teachers. They will also keep an eye on the implications of virtual and blended learning as they expect growth in that areas.

Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark is the CEO of Getting Smart. He has written or co-authored more than 50 books and papers including Getting Smart, Smart Cities, Smart Parents, Better Together, The Power of Place and Difference Making. He served as a public school superintendent and the first Executive Director of Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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