Failing Schools Showed Progress With Most of the Same Teachers

By Bess Keller — April 04, 2008 3 min read
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Much of the widely reported improvement in student achievement at eight inner-city Chattanooga, Tenn., schools seems to be linked to the rising effectiveness of teachers who had been at the schools when their students’ performance was dismal, a report from an education think tank concludes.

That finding goes against the way the elementary schools’ story has often been told by education reformers, many of whom have focused on financial incentives that were meant to lure better teachers to the schools.

“In this case, we see . . . an existing staff improve over time,” said Elena Silva, the author of the report, which was slated for release this week by the Washington-based Education Sector.

And despite attention to the flashier parts of the Benwood Initiative, named for a local foundation that helped underwrite the effort to salvage the schools, the improvement did not result from any one or two changes, the researcher said. Some new teachers came to the schools after all the existing teachers were required to reapply for their jobs in 2003, but about two-thirds were rehired.

What made the difference instead, Ms. Silva said, was a host of changes devised by the Hamilton County school district and its community partners, including intensive attempts to shape up the eight schools and help the teachers improve their practice. “There isn’t any simple policy solution to the teacher-quality problem, though it is the right problem,” she said.

The 40,000-student district has included Chattanooga as well as the wealthier suburban areas surrounding it since a merger in 1997. In 1999, a ranking of Tennessee elementary schools by average scores on the state achievement test showed eight of the 20 worst to be in Chattanooga. Teacher qualifications in those schools were relatively low, and turnover high, compared with the district overall.

Comparing Effectiveness

To see how teacher effectiveness in the eight schools compared with teacher effectiveness in other Hamilton County schools, the report considers ratings derived from a “value added” analysis developed and conducted by the researcher William Sanders, now of the Cary, N.C.-based SAS Institute.

Upward Track

The performance of math teachers in the Benwood schools improved with the coaching and other changes, while performance remained virtually unchanged for their counterparts in other Hamilton County, Tenn., schools.


SOURCE: SAS Institute Inc.

In general terms, the analysis attempts to isolate a teacher’s effect on each student’s achievement from one year to the next by holding steady such confounding factors as a student’s economic background, previous achievement, and school characteristics.

For this study, Mr. Sanders and his colleague Paul Wright looked at the valueadded ratings for more than 550 4th and 5th grade math teachers in the district with at least three years of experience, the minimum necessary for the analysis.

From 2000 to 2004, the rated effectiveness among the Benwood schools’ teachers was significantly below the district average, though improving. By 2005, the experienced Benwood teachers had moved to above-average effectiveness, and they improved again the following year. In the same time period, the effectiveness of the teachers in the district’s other schools remained essentially unchanged.

“What the Sanders analysis of Hamilton County teachers shows is that while attracting new teachers helped, the improvement in the Benwood schools turns out to be in large part a function of other reforms, especially the many steps Hamilton County officials took to improve the performance of existing Benwood teachers,” the report says.

Even the brand-new teachers brought on in 2003 did not enter the data set until 2006 because of the three-year requirement. Among the changes that seemed to count were adding teacher coaches and reading specialists, reorienting administrators to instruction, beefing up student data and helping teachers make better use of it in their classrooms, and signaling through bonuses for raising test scores and other rewards that the teachers’ work was valued.

Ms. Silva points out, too, that school and community leaders took advantage of the new context of a merged district to focus intensely on the needs of the district’s lowestperforming elementary schools.

Robert Reichardt, who researches teacher quality at the school of public affairs at the University of Colorado at Denver, hailed the study as “good news” because “it goes in the pile that says we can improve teacher quality” without getting in a whole new batch of teachers.

But the study says little about how much improvement can be wrought among veterans, he said, because “the data is really limited” to teachers in two grades and one subject.

A version of this article appeared in the April 09, 2008 edition of Education Week as Failing Schools Showed Progress With Most of the Same Teachers


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