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Originally published Friday, November 20, 2009 at 12:12 AM

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$335 million in education grants

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation launched a large teacher-effectiveness effort Thursday, awarding $335 million in grants aimed at revamping the way teachers are recruited, trained, evaluated and paid.

Seattle Times education reporter

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is launching a $335 million effort aimed at dramatically changing the way teachers in the U.S. are recruited, evaluated, supported and paid.

Most of the money — $290 million — will go to just a handful of school districts and a consortium of charter-school organizations that the foundation hopes will lead the way to putting an effective teacher in every classroom.

Hillsborough County Public Schools in Florida will receive $100 million — the single biggest award ever to one district, according to foundation officials. Memphis City Schools will receive $90 million and Pittsburgh Public Schools $40 million. The five charter-school organizations, all in Los Angeles, will receive $60 million.

The remaining $45 million will be spent on a research project involving 3,700 teachers that's aimed at understanding what makes an effective teacher and devising ways to measure effectiveness that all parties buy into.

The grants, announced Thursday, are big even for the Gates Foundation — roughly equal to its first large foray into K-12 education nine years ago, which then was thought to be the second-largest gift ever to U.S. schools.

The foundation asked 10 school districts to apply for the grants based on a number of criteria, and no school districts in Washington state were invited.

Over the years, Washington state schools have received a number of large Gates Foundation grants — including $26 million to Seattle in 2000. But not recently.

Foundation officials said they looked for districts with a lot of high-needs students, a history of tackling teacher-quality issues and a willingness and readiness to try bold new approaches to how teachers are recruited, trained, evaluated and paid.

Teachers unions — or teachers, if there was no union — had to be a partner.

State policy was also a factor, said foundation spokesman Chris Williams, and that hurt the Seattle School District. Washington state, he said, hasn't pursued the kinds of teacher-quality efforts the foundation would like to see.

The grants are the first major gifts to education since the foundation announced last November that it would focus less on creating small high schools — its first major move in education — and branch into national learning standards for high schools, improving data and teacher quality. At the time, foundation officials said they would spend up to $500 million during the next five years to improve teacher quality in a handful of districts.

In a conference call Thursday, Melinda Gates said she's confident the new grants will accomplish more than the foundation's high-school initiative — where results were mixed.

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"We've learned a lot about what works," she said. "It's not that small high schools did not work ... but we went straight to what works." The foundation, she said, wants to "focus on the thing that absolutely matters the most, which is the teacher."

Hillsborough County Public Schools in Tampa, already gives out raises based on performance that can raise a teacher's salary by 50 percent. Teachers there also receive bonuses for teaching in high-needs schools, and principals in high-needs schools have first priority in choosing teachers.

Its plans include redesigning its teacher-evaluation system so that 40 percent is based on student achievement.

In Pittsburgh, the school district says it will use the grant to pilot a new teacher-evaluation system in half of its schools, and participating teachers will have a minimum of eight observations per year.

Linda Shaw: 206-464-2359 or lshaw@seattletimes.com

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