Teaching Profession

Charging the Gap

By Bess Keller — February 28, 2006 10 min read
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A superintendent typically does not ask principals, point-blank, to take on the weakest teachers from elsewhere in the district. And if a superintendent were to make the request, the principals likely would protest. But Superintendent Jesse B. Register did make it when the Hamilton County district and its community partners undertook to pull nine inner-city Chattanooga schools off a list of Tennessee’s 20 worst-performing.

“We’re only as strong as our weakest links,” Mr. Register told administrators, reminding them that progress at their schools might have been stymied, too, with a bunch of flagging teachers.

A student exits a 4th grade reading class at Hardy Elementary in Chattanooga, Tenn., one of Hamilton County's lowest-performing schools but now on the upswing.

In his appeal, he didn’t need to point out one reality: No jobs could be a potential deal-breaker with the local teachers’ union. Would each of the principals take one or two of the leftover teachers, he asked, and help them improve or move on?

The principals agreed to find spots for some 30 teachers who had no place else to go.

The story highlights two pillars of the almost-stunning progress achieved by what were once bottom-of-the-barrel schools. One, the turnaround effort came from the schools and the district—indeed, grew well beyond the 40,500-student Hamilton County school system, which includes Chattanooga, as the project picked up community partners.

And two, the plan took as its primary strategy improving and stabilizing each school’s teaching staff. With widespread acknowledgment that good teaching matters for student achievement more than any other single education resource, the superintendent and his team targeted a “teacher gap” to fix their most troubled schools.

Five years on, the plan seems to have taken hold. The schools as a group have made greater gains than 90 percent of the other elementary schools in the state for three years. State test results from 2003 showed that just over half the schools’ students were reading at the “proficient” level or above; by last year, that percentage was a point shy of three-quarters. And by just about all accounts, the schools feel like different places now.

Stars in Alignment

From the beginning, the district benefited from the commitment of the Public Education Foundation of Chattanooga and Hamilton County, which supports the school system while operating independently of it. The PEF drew in the Benwood Foundation, a local philanthropy built on a Chattanooga Coca-Cola bottling fortune.

The two groups were stirred to action after a think tank ranked all elementary schools in the state by reading level. Nine of the bottom 20 were in Chattanooga, though Memphis, for example, has four times as many children from poor families. Benwood made a splash in 2001 with its Benwood Initiative, pledging $1 million a year to the schools for five years. The Public Education Foundation chipped in half that amount. Most of the money was earmarked for professional development.

The three parties settled on an easily understood and measurable goal: All children in the schools would be reading at the proficient level or higher on the state’s 3rd grade reading test by the end of five years.

“The stars are beginning to line up,” administrator Ray Swoffard remembers arguing back then to the skeptics, who included teachers and principals at the target schools. “This is the only time we’ll have the chance to make a difference, with this leadership and these partnerships.”

Mr. Register appointed Mr. Swoffard the district’s first assistant superintendent for urban education and gave him authority over the district’s pot of federal Title I money for disadvantaged students.

Hardy Elementary students wait with their arms crossed in the hallway before moving to their next class. Children are expected to travel the hallways in that pose to help maintain calm.

The bold plan devised by the district and its growing number of partners drew national attention. Especially eye-popping was an offer—which originated with Chattanooga’s then-Mayor Bob Corker—to pay successful teachers an annual bonus if they would move into one of the target schools.

Teachers with a record of boosting student test scores under Tennessee’s “value added” teacher-assessment system would get a bonus of $5,000 for each of three years if they transferred to one of the schools. Bonuses received for schoolwide improvement could make a job there worth as much as an extra $7,000 a year.

The bonuses were also extended annually to teachers already at the schools who raised classroom achievement to a specified level, as well as to principals whose schools made a test-score cutoff mark.

Other extras for teachers at the target schools included help with mortgages in any of the schools’ surrounding neighborhoods, low-cost legal aid, and, eventually, free master’s degrees in a special program at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga subsidized by the local Osborne Foundation.

The incentive plan brought kudos from around the country, but it didn’t have the effect that its national supporters envisioned: just three teachers moved from the district’s suburban schools in response to the goodies. Yet dozens of educators already in the schools have gone on to earn bonuses. A few teachers have bought houses under the program, and more than 40 have completed or are enrolled in the master’s-degree program.

By the end of the project’s first year, the term “Benwood schools” was replacing other ways of describing the group. It appeared to bubble up from the schools themselves, where morale was on the upswing.

First Principals, Then Teachers

Mr. Register, meanwhile, had fixed on twin problems that many observers say defeat the most rudimentary attempts to improve teacher quality: faculty deadwood and hiring practices penalizing high-poverty, high-minority schools that already attract the fewest teachers.

See Also

Read the accompanying story,

Merger Makes a Difference

To make progress on those fronts, the superintendent sought the help of the Hamilton County Education Association, an affiliate of the National Education Association. After a round of bitter contract negotiations in 1997 and 1998, Mr. Register and Gerry M. Dowler, the union’s coordinator, had forged a cooperative relationship around a bargaining process that emphasizes common goals.

New negotiations gave the district the right to start staffing some schools from scratch. No teacher was guaranteed a job when a school was “reconstituted.”

Proficiency Gains

The achievement gap between the district’s lowest-performing elementary schools and the remainder of Hamilton County’s elementary schools has narrowed significantly, based on state tests.

*Click image to see the full chart.


Value-Added Scores

Most of the lowest performing, or “Benwood,” schools experienced exceptional improvement on state tests in 2005.

*Click image to see the full chart.


SOURCE: Hamilton County School District

By 2003, the contract also set new rules for teacher transfers. The changes slightly reduced the advantages for classroom veterans, but continued to allow them to move to jobs they preferred. More important for the Benwood schools, the rules shortened the time it took for tenured teachers to be sorted out, so that principals could hire newly minted teachers earlier than in the past.

“That one change made a tremendous difference in how we can hire,” said Mr. Register, who often refers to a shameful “double standard” between schools serving poor youngsters and those serving middle-class ones. “The [target] schools had always been the last to staff and got the leftover people.”

Still, the changes merely removed barriers to improving the quality of the teaching staff. It took a principal on a mission to assemble a better group.

“We learned you had to reconstitute the administrative staff before the teachers,” Mr. Swoffard explained. “At our lowest-performing school after reconstitution, the principal took out zero teachers.”

Not so Natalie Elder, who in 2001 became the principal of Hardy Elementary School, with its bright new building in a neighborhood of mostly down-at-the-heels bungalows and squat public housing. She handpicked 30 teachers, taking only seven from the existing staff of the school. Eighteen of that first group were neophytes, and she let eight of them go after the first year. Another nine beginners left at the end of 2003. Last year, no one departed, Ms. Elder said.

As she conversed, the principal occasionally cut her eyes to the side, scanning the length of her building for signs of trouble. When a sheriff’s car pulled up in front, she was glad to see it was only that the lawman’s son has forgotten his lunch again. “Our kids are exposed to so much,” she said. “I want a teacher to have empathy, but still be firm as a teacher. If you feel sorry for them, you can’t do the job.”

And you can’t do the job without steadily honing your practice, according to Ms. Elder.

Patricia Harvey, above, points to new vocabulary words during a 4th grade reading class at Hardy Elementary School.

Professional development is a theme running through the life of the Benwood group. Each school, for instance, has a full-time “consulting teacher” focused on beginners.The principals, most of whom came to their jobs with only a few years as administrators, have also been coached by experienced colleagues. Consulting teachers and school- building administrators share responsibility for teacher development, which is often centered on the increasingly rich student-learning data the central office and the Public Education Foundation help the schools generate.

As the consulting teacher at Hardy Elementary, Teresa Seymore is not required to meet with or observe all 30 teachers there, but she makes a point of doing so.

The veteran educator acknowledges that the teaching at Hardy is not as nimble as at her old school, a magnet with a fine reputation and a faculty of old hands. But, she says, instruction is focused on student needs and it is improving.

“We’ve stepped it up so much,” she said. “There’s more time on task, and instruction is more thoughtfully delivered.”

In this way, the district as a whole is taking after the Benwood schools. Some 5 percent of the Hamilton County system’s operating budget goes for professional development, according to Superintendent Register, who has also redrawn lines of authority and “decentralized instructional support” to back the effort. One striking sign of decentralization was the shift six years ago of 14 curriculum-related positions from the central office to the schools.

Hardy Elementary teacher Patricia Harvey, who taught for more than 10 years at that school before the Benwood initiative, agrees that the changes are making for greater success. “I’m more tired than I ever was before,” she said, “but I feel better at the end of the day.”

One year, she earned a $5,000 bonus for raising her 4th grade students’ test scores; last year, she missed the mark by a point or two. But neither makes a difference to her commitment, she said.

“Money is just a validation for what we’ve been doing all along,” Ms. Harvey offered. “We’re finally getting recognition that’s positive, and that feels good.”

Close to Equal

Over at East Side Elementary School in an older section of Chattanooga that houses many of the city’s Spanish-speakers, Assistant Principal Valerie Brown agrees morale is up. At the district’s hiring fair for the last two years, she said, teacher-hopefuls have made a bee-line to her school’s table. “We were full with interviews from 10 to 2,” she added.

Sara DeGenaro came to the 600-student East Side three years ago almost fresh out of Carson-Newman College near Knoxville, Tenn. Looking for more of a challenge than she would have had in the school where she interned, she ended up in a Chattanooga school that struck her as cold and unwelcoming. When enrollment figures forced her transfer 10 days into the school year, she cried on hearing she was going to East Side.

To her surprise, she felt “instantly at home.” The principal, Emily Baker, made a point of telling Ms. DeGenaro she had requested her. The other four kindergarten teachers had pulled materials from their own shelves and organized Ms. DeGenaro’s classroom. She was sold.

District officials say that at almost all the Benwood schools, the staffs have stabilized. By next year, they believe, Benwood teachers will have master’s degrees in the same proportion as the teaching force as a whole. And while the teachers’ years of experience still lag behind the district average, the number is rising.

“We’ve created places where good teachers can go and be successful,” Mr. Register told the district’s parent council in January. “You go to the average suburban school, … and you see a stable, good faculty, and that’s what a lot of urban schools don’t have.”

The Benwood schools are well on the way to eliminating the teaching double standard, the superintendent believes. “You can make a real difference in the quality of teachers for children, and we’ve done that,” he said.

“But the ultimate issue,” Mr. Register said, “is that it is not fair to socially isolate minority and disadvantaged children. In that, we as a nation are not where we want to be.”

Coverage of new schooling arrangements and classroom improvement efforts is supported by a grant from the Annenberg Foundation.
A version of this article appeared in the March 01, 2006 edition of Education Week as Charging the Gap


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