The sea change at Tulsa Public Schools has one source, and superintendant Keith Ballard isn't shy about explaining it.
"I've attended a Gates convening on everything," said Ballard, seated at a table in his office.
He's referring to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the philanthropic effort brimming with funds from one of the world's richest men, Bill Gates.
The Seattle-based foundation has made education reform a top priority, spreading resources to many public schools.
Tulsa Public Schools is one of the very few school districts to receive a high-level of support and attention from the Gates Foundation, having been awarded a three-year, $1.5 million grant expiring early next year.
Tulsa Public Schools had been "on the radar" of the foundation for a while, Ballard said.
This prompted an application from TPS for grant money, said Talia Shaull, the district's chief human capital officer.
"We were not the recipient of the big grant," Shaull said, adding that some winners received between $30 and $80 million. "We were one of the top ten finalists."
Ballard, who became superintendent in 2008, said his philosophy fit with the goals of the Gates Foundation.
"I have always believed it was about the effectiveness of teachers," Ballard said. At smaller school districts he headed, he could meet and know ever teacher.
But TPS has roughly 3,000 teachers.
Upon arriving in Tulsa, "one of the big issues for TPS is that we did not have an effective teaching force," Ballard said. "But you know what, I'm not the only one who saw it that way, because in one of the initial Gates surveys, about 60 percent of the people who teach in Tulsa said they had reservations about their colleagues teaching their kids or their grandkids."
Shaull said the districts receiving the large grants were able to add performance-based pay incentives for all teachers.
Instead, "Gates did approve us for a small seed grant," she said. Ballard credited the foundation with spurring a strategic plan as well as new relationships with the local community.
"It is a result of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation that the board spent almost two years on a strategic plan," Ballard said.
Embedded in the plan is a description of a performance-based culture, which means that many things get measured that weren't previously, Ballard said.
Julie Fabrocini, a senior program officer with the Gates Foundation, said she has visited Tulsa about 15 times over the last two years, while about five or six other Gates representatives have also visited Tulsa.
Those visits will soon begin to decrease, but TPS is now linked with other districts to receive funding as part of a cohort of other districts who received Gates support, Fabrocini said.
She credited Tulsa Public Schools leaders, as well as the Tulsa philanthropic community -- notably the George Kaiser Family Foundation and the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation -- with implementing change.
"The great thing about the Tulsa work, while the grant is ending, the work is sustainable. That's amazing," Fabrocini said.
As far as evaluating leadership, the Gates Foundation was credited as assisting with the superintendent search that ultimately resulted in Ballard agreeing to stay with the district another year. Several months ago, he had announced plans to retire at the end of the current school year, but now will stay on through the 2013-2014 school year.
Fabrocini described the foundation's role in the leadership search as helping the board "think about what the archetype is of the type of superintendent that they're looking for," and to "prompt reflection and thought with the board about how they want to move forward."
The effectiveness initiative extends beyond teachers. The district has published statistics showing that the principal retention rate was 64.1 percent in the 2010-2011 school year.
Ballard stressed that the district now is doing much more detailed work to evaluate and train principals, however.
"Now we do have a leadership development program. We are assessing principals. We are measuring principals. We are finding out if they have the ability to evaluate teachers. We are ranking them. We are training them," Ballard said.
The bottom line for parents, however, is that the work with the Gates Foundation has put the focus on teacher effectiveness, Ballard said, calling it "our unerring goal ... what we are striving for every day."
The Gates Foundation has its critics, including Diane Ravitch, a research professor of education at New York University who has written extensively about education.
"Who elected these people?" Ravitch wrote in an email.
Only in the last 10 years or so has the Gates Foundation or any foundation wielded so much influence in education, she wrote.
"In the past, foundations like Ford, Carnegie and Rockefeller seldom meddled," Ravitch wrote. The Gates Foundation "uses its vast resources to direct national education policy," Ravitch wrote, describing the foundation as believing "that there is some metric that will identify best and worst teachers."
Fabrocini said the foundation believes "a rigorous and thorough evaluation system requires multiple metrics."
Clearly, however, leaders with Tulsa Public Schools see the Gates Foundation's involvement as benefitting the school system.
"We are intertwined with the Gates people. And I make no apologies for that. They have provided resources. They have provided backing. We are still a locally-controlled school. We have seven elected board of education members," Ballard said. "But we do believe the work in this district that the work the Gates Foundation has done with us has really provided a compass for our work."
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