Friday, May 9, 2008

Investing in Teachers to Turn Schools Around

Lots of voices in education seem to believe that the only way to turn low-performing schools around involves big, top-down initiatives. While the role of excellent leadership can’t be underestimated, there is plenty of evidence that the key ‘lever’ to change is teacher quality. A good example of the essential role of investing in teachers is in the Benwood schools in Chattanooga, Tennessee. The Benwood schools went from among the 20 worst-performing schools in the state of Tennessee to acclaimed models of success. The results are impressive – in the eight targeted schools, student achievement has jumped 27 percentage points on state reading tests, well above state and district averages, teacher morale is up and teacher turnover is down, and an analysis using William Sanders’ Tennessee Value-Added Assessment System shows significant gains in teacher effectiveness. Simply put—the students learned more because the teachers got better.

So what made it happen? Both Benwood reformers and outside analysts acknowledge that there were multiple factors that led to the changes, but as Elena Silva at Education Sector explained recently, the success can ultimately be ascribed to the fact that the reform was teacher-centered and partially teacher-driven. Instead of taking an ‘out with the old and in with the new’ approach (firing under-performing teachers and relying on new hires to create change), the Benwood Initiative invested in the teachers it already had, providing ongoing professional development focused on high-quality classroom instruction.

The most high-profile of the Benwood reforms was a financial incentive plan, established by local business leaders, and designed to attract top talent to Benwood classrooms. These incentives, which included help with mortgages and graduate school payments, as well as performance bonuses, appeared in the press, government proposals, and policy papers nationwide. Yet only 5% of teachers actually participated in the incentive plan. Silva concludes that the impact of financial incentives was "overstated" and that reforms that focused on existing teachers, such as mentoring, collaboration, and feedback, were at least as successful as trying to bring in new talent, if not more so.

In an ultimately successful move, the district superintendent asked Benwood teachers and principals about their needs and opinions, and then listened to what they had to say. As a result, teachers soon had "mentor and peer support, constructive principal feedback, and more time for instruction and lesson preparation." The district brought in consulting teachers, leadership coaches, and additional staff such as reading specialists, and fostered an improved relationship with the union. This new atmosphere of collaboration, support, respect, and progress led to more satisfied teachers, better schools, higher-performing students, and a more effective administration.

There are many lessons to be taken from this. As Silva affirms, "teacher effectiveness isn't fixed." Instead, supporting and inspiring teachers to challenge themselves is not only possible, but essential to building better schools. Teacher-centered reform should not mean mass firings and new hiring, but helping teachers become more effective, and allowing those teachers to have a voice in the reform process.

Sounds pretty inspired.

Thanks to Research Assistant Rebecca Shinners for researching and drafting this post.

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