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Hamilton County, Tennessee, is home to one of the nation's most widely touted school-reform success stories. Beginning in 2001, eight low-performing elementary schools began an ambitious upward trek. With $5 million from the Chattanooga-based Benwood Foundation and funding from several other local organizations, school and community officials launched an intensive teacher-centered campaign to reform the inner-city Chattanooga schools. The effort, now known as the "Benwood Initiative," drastically improved student achievement, and education observers took notice. Former U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige cited Benwood's success in his 2003 annual report to Congress. And national media outlets have trumpeted the Benwood story since, including the Washington Post, Reader's Digest, and Education Week.
Most of these accolades have focused on a distinct approach to improving teaching in low-performing schools. In short: get better teachers. To some extent, this is what happened. School district officials reconstituted the faculties of the Benwood schools, requiring teachers to reapply for their jobs and hiring replacements for those who didn't make the cut. Community officials established financial incentives to attract new talent, including free graduate school tuition, mortgage loans, and performance bonuses. The press, policymakers, and education organizations have pointed to these incentives as the source of Benwood's success. "They're offering cold cash … and they're getting results," declared the Dallas Morning News in 2003. Two years later, Arizona Senator Jon Kyl cited Benwood's "incentive package" as evidence of the wisdom of merit pay for teachers. And more recently, the Education Commission of the States and the national Working Group on Teaching Quality praised Benwood's teacher compensation initiatives.
But the arguments that these initiatives brought a flood of new and better teachers into the schools' classrooms have been overstated. Most of the teachers who reapplied for their jobs were hired back, and less than 20 of the 300 teachers in the Benwood schools received bonuses in the first year of the much-touted financial-incentive plan.
Benwood's success has had at least as much to do with a second, equally important teacher-reform strategy: helping teachers improve the quality of their instruction. A new analysis of "value-added" teacher effectiveness data conducted for this report indicates that over a period of six years, existing teachers in the eight Benwood elementary schools improved steadily. Before the Benwood Initiative kicked off, they were far less effective than their peers elsewhere in the Hamilton County district. By 2006, a group of mostly the same teachers had surpassed the district average.
This improvement was by design. The Benwood Initiative was about much more than pay incentives and reconstitution; the district invested heavily in mentoring programs to train teachers, in additional staff to support curriculum and instruction, and in stronger and more collaborative leadership at the school level. At the same time, the Benwood Initiative was buoyed by better labor-management relations and a host of other reform efforts at the district level.
These findings have implications for other districts looking to turn around low-performing schools—of which there are many in the era of the federal No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). There is no doubt that disadvantaged students are disproportionately likely in American education to be taught by less experienced, less qualified, less effective teachers. Given the strong relationship between teacher quality and student learning, this disparity is one of the reasons that schools like the pre-reform Benwood eight do so poorly. But solving that problem is not only a matter of playing the politically treacherous zero-sum game of redistributing teachers from one school to another.
As the Benwood Initiative demonstrates, individual teacher effectiveness is not a fixed trait. School systems can take many steps, as Hamilton County has, to improve teachers' work in classrooms.
This report was made possible by a grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York. The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the author.