Letting good teachers fix bad schools; Chattanooga’s incentives, shuffling of educators boost urban campuses

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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In 2001, Bob Corker was elected Chattanooga’s mayor, not its school superintendent.

But he knew that the future of Tennessee’s fourth-largest city was tied to its schools. And he knew that the old ways of distributing teachers – shipping the least qualified to the worst central-city schools – couldn’t last.

“In those schools, we couldn’t recruit or retain highly qualified teachers,” he said. “Actually, we couldn’t keep any teachers.”

So Mr. Corker and other Chattanooga leaders launched an effort to draw the region’s best teachers into its most troubled schools. They’re offering cold cash, free graduate school tuition, forgivable loans and other incentives. And they’re getting results.

“The most important thing in a classroom is the caliber of the teacher,” said Rebecca Everett, principal at Hillcrest Elementary School. “Before, we had to take whatever we could get. Now people want to teach here.”

It’s a model that might be of interest to some Texas school districts. An analysis by The Dallas Morning News this month found that schools with large numbers of poor and minority students are more likely than other schools to have a higher percentage of uncertified or rookie teachers. Educators say closing that gap is key to improving weak schools.

The News’ study created something called the Teacher Preparation Index to see how successfully Texas schools are hiring well-prepared teachers. The TPI rates a school on a scale from 1 (lowest) to 10 (highest), based on how many of its teachers are certified and experienced.

The study found some of the greatest disparities in large urban areas, where central-city districts such as Dallas and Houston scored well below neighboring suburban districts.

That’s the same pattern that existed for years in Chattanooga, a city of 155,000 near the borders of Georgia and Alabama. Suburban schools in Hamilton County had solid test scores, good reputations and qualified teachers. Schools closer to the urban core, meanwhile, weren’t so strong.

“What we’ve been dealing with for decades is a double standard,” said Jesse Register, superintendent of Hamilton County schools. “We’ve said it’s OK to be a substandard teacher in an inner-city school, where parents might not fuss or where there’s a lower standard.”

Making big moves

In 2000, nine of Tennessee’s 20 lowest-performing schools, all elementaries, were in Chattanooga’s central city. All were dysfunctional enough that state officials placed them “on notice” – a warning that if test scores didn’t improve, the schools faced state takeover.

That galvanized the city’s leaders – Mr. Corker, the school system, local charitable foundations and businesses – into action.

Led by the local Benwood Foundation – founded in 1944 by a Coca-Cola bottling magnate – they decided to focus all their efforts on those nine schools. They’ve been known as the Benwood schools ever since.

The leaders immediately focused on the distribution of qualified teachers. The best tended to stay away from the urban schools. Even the talented young teachers whom Benwood schools could land usually didn’t stay long.

So Dr. Register took the unusual step of asking the schools to identify their weakest teachers for a move to the suburbs.

His reasoning: “If you’ve got one or two teachers who need help in a school, you can deal with them. If you’ve got a dozen or 15, it’s overwhelming.”

Dr. Register had the authority to move teachers to the suburbs because all Hamilton County schools are governed as a single school district. He also got cooperation from teacher groups.

Eventually, 100 teachers were shipped out of the Benwood schools. The next step was luring better teachers to take their places. To identify the right ones, officials turned to Tennessee’s accountability system.

Each year, the state grades teachers based on how much their students improve their standardized test scores over the previous year.

For example: If Miss Jones’ students learn as much in one year as the state expects, she’s given a score of 100 – meaning she’s about average as a teacher. But if she’s able to squeeze a little more out of her students – say, they finish a few weeks ahead of where they should be – Miss Jones might score a 110 or 120. That means she was 10 or 20 percent more effective at boosting test scores than an average teacher.

In Chattanooga, high-quality teachers who score at least 115 are eligible for a $5,000 annual bonus – but only if they teach in one of the Benwood schools.

The perks don’t end there. A local foundation gives teachers in the Benwood schools free tuition toward a master’s degree in urban education. Local attorneys donate free legal services to Benwood teachers.

Another local foundation offers teachers a $10,000 loan toward a down payment on a house around the schools; the loans are forgiven if the teachers stay at least five years.

And if a Benwood school boosts its overall test scores enough, every teacher in the school gets another bonus of up to $2,000.

The district and private foundations also added more money to hire assistant principals and put instructional leaders in Benwood schools.

“We are pumping in every possible resource,” said Krystal Scarborough, one of two assistant principals at 400-student Clifton Hills Elementary. A Texas elementary school that size might have only one assistant principal, or none.

Enticement of incentives

Since the incentives debuted, staffing the urban schools has become much easier. A year ago, on the first day of school, there were 30 vacancies in core teaching positions at the Benwood schools, Dr. Register said. This year, there were two.

“People still give me looks: ‘Why would you leave a suburban school?'” said Kristy Bramlett, a teacher who did exactly that to move to Hillcrest Elementary. She’s taking advantage of the free tuition to get a master’s in urban education at the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga.

“I see myself growing more as a teacher here. It’s more of a challenge. The perspective is starting to change,” she said.

Dr. Everett, Hillcrest’s principal, said the teacher applicant pool has gotten stronger. “Teachers with higher grade-point averages, people with more training, people from different universities,” she said.

A few years ago, when Dr. Everett was principal at a different inner-city school, “I got the applications the suburban schools didn’t want. I’d be hiring people up until the day school starts.”

At Clifton Hills, where 98 percent of students are poor, finding teachers had always been a struggle.

“The reputation of the students wasn’t good – it was wild,” said fourth-grade teacher Rebecca Harper. “The teaching staff was young. There was a very unstable population in the school.”

This year, the school had to hire only two new teachers – one of them for a position that didn’t exist last year. With a corps of veterans in place, “people get into a rhythm, a routine,” Ms. Harper said. “You don’t have a new teacher who’s struggling until January just to get control of the classroom. You can focus on instruction.”

There has been a positive impact on student performance as well. On this year’s Tennessee state tests, passing rates in the Benwood schools increased more than three times as much as in the district’s suburban schools.

The percentage of third-graders reading at or above grade level increased at every Benwood school last year – in most cases by 10 percentage points or more.

But Chattanooga officials say the biggest victory might be in public perception.

One of the difficulties in attracting teachers to low-performing schools is stigma – the stench of failure that sometimes hangs over schools that people have given up on.

“Many of these teachers felt like they were on a losing football team,” Mr. Corker said. “People would ask them where they worked and they wouldn’t feel good about the answer.”

‘Issue of honor’

So a big part of the Benwood initiative is honoring the teachers willing to work in struggling schools – making them feel as distinguished as educators in the suburbs. What were once called low-performing schools became “high priority” schools. There are gatherings at the mayor’s house and a stream of plaudits.

“What seems different about Chattanooga is that issue of honor,” said Kati Haycock, executive director of the Education Trust, a nonprofit group that’s working to close the educational gap between rich and poor. “You can offer bonuses, but you really need to improve the status of these teachers. You need to celebrate these people, make a big deal about what they’re doing.”

“Teacher morale has totally changed,” Ms. Harper said.

There are a few difficulties with the Chattanooga model.

For one, it costs money. Dr. Register said he didn’t know how much the programs cost per student, but the Benwood Foundation has given $5 million. The salary bonuses, the free tuition and the extra support staff in Benwood schools cost money at a time when budgets are tight.

Dr. Register said much of the extra cash comes from making better use of the district’s federal funding. Money that used to go to computers and equipment is now “really concentrated on the classroom,” he said.

A major difference

Another problem in applying the approach in a place such as Texas: Most districts here are not governed like Hamilton County, where schools are operated as one district.

The Dallas-Fort Worth area, for example, has more than 50 school districts. When Dallas raises its teacher salaries, suburban schools typically raise their pay to match. So while Dallas pays its starting teachers more than $38,000 a year – one of the highest such salaries in Texas – the suburbs aren’t far behind. That makes it more difficult to use salary as a lure for urban schools.

Reshuffling teachers also risks alienating suburban parents, who may be accustomed to having the best teachers to themselves. Dr. Register said he hasn’t seen much of a backlash, but Ms. Scarborough said some suburban parents have taken notice.

“There is that feeling that the urban schools get everything and ‘They’ve forgotten us,'” she said. “But there are people lining up to get into suburban schools. People in the suburbs realize they can replace their teachers much more readily than we can.”

She and other educators said there’s widespread support for the shifts Chattanooga has made – not least because it’s been a local solution to a problem cities face nationwide.

“We know we can’t count on Nashville or Washington, D.C., to make these changes for us,” Ms. Scarborough said. “We know that if it’s going to get done, we have to do it ourselves.”