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Improving schools is not about firing teachers – it’s about leadership

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The experience in district after New Hampshire school district is that it’s the leadership that makes the difference in how well the school performs.  I’ve talked to school board members who thought that many of the teachers in a certain school performed poorly but, under a new principal, those same teachers, they agreed, were doing a great job.  They were inspired and given direction and support.

And have you heard about the Chattanooga, TN schools?  In 2000, a report came out saying that nine of Tennessee’s worst 20 elementary schools were in Chattanooga.  The city’s leadership decided to do something about it.  The superintendent started by firing all the teachers.  But then they made a very important discovery about leadership and teaching.

Here is the hour-long award-winning radio story about the turnaround in Chattanooga schools.  It’s by Emily Hanford.  You can listen here or download it as a podcast.

And here are excerpts that convey the thrust of the story (emphasis is mine; full transcript here):

There have been only a few big studies of programs that are supposed to help teachers improve, and the evidence is: they don’t work. That’s why [Stanford economist Eric] Hanushek thinks the focus should be getting rid of bad teachers, and recruiting better ones.

But there are more than three million teachers in the United States. If every child is really going to have a good teacher, there needs to be some way to help teachers improve. And while the programs that have been studied so far don’t seem to work, there is compelling evidence that one small city in the South has figured something out about how to make its teaching force much, much better. American RadioWorks producer Emily Hanford picks up the story.

Emily Hanford: Chattanooga, Tennessee is a city of mountains and valleys. People who live on the mountains are mostly white — middle and upper class. They send their children to private schools, or to the well-regarded public schools in the hills. Down in the valley people are more likely to be African-American or Hispanic, and poor. They send their children to the city schools, like this elementary school near downtown Chattanooga.

The students start each day crowded into the cafeteria for the Pledge of Allegiance. This school and the other inner city schools of Chattanooga were in rough shape for a long time. In the year 2000 a think tank in Tennessee ranked all of the elementary schools in the state, and nine of the worst 20 schools were here in the city of Chattanooga.


[The president of Chattanooga’s Benwood Foundation, Corrine] Allen says the report startled her. And people in the world of education reform wanted to do something. Here’s Dan Challener, president of an education reform group in Chattanooga called The Public Education Foundation.

Dan Challener: This is not what we want our city to be famous for. This is a terrible indictment. We have to do something.

So Challener’s group got together with the Benwood Foundation and officials from the school district to figure out what was wrong with the city schools. 


In the nine city schools that were doing so badly, there were lots of very low-performing teachers too — teachers whose students were making little or no gains on the tests, year after year after year.

Allen: And sadly, what we found is that a number of these inner-city schools had become safe havens for low-performing teachers.

They called it “dancing the lemons around,” says Corrine Allen of the Benwood Foundation. If a school in the suburbs got a teacher who the principal or the parents thought wasn’t very good, the teacher didn’t get fired; the school system just transferred the teacher to a different school.

Allen: And those transfers kept going until that teacher was in a “forgotten” school.

The forgotten schools were the low-performing city schools. The Benwood Foundation was prepared to kick in millions to make these schools better. But first, the bad teachers had to go. So the superintendent fired them – not just the poor performing teachers, but every single teacher in all nine elementary schools.

Challener: He used something that was in his authority as superintendent called reconstitution….Every teacher in those nine buildings had to reapply for their position. And the principal was empowered to say, “Yes, I’d like you to join this new staff,” or, “No, I wouldn’t.”


in the end, they rehired almost everyone. More than two-thirds of the teachers got their jobs back.

So what happened next in Chattanooga was not what the foundations and the school system initially set out to do. Instead of building up a new teaching staff, their task was to take the teachers they already had, and figure out how to make them much, much better. Dan Challener says they began by going back to that first “aha” moment they had when looking at the data.

Challener: There were outstanding teachers in every one of these schools.

If there were great teachers in every school, why not start with them? Find out what makes them great. So they went to see Joe Curtis.

….[This part of the radio report is a window into Joe Curtis’ classroom and how he teaches.]

Swanson: It’s a normal part of learning to feel off-balance. And sometimes we don’t talk about that.

This is Susan Swanson …. She’s the director of education for the Benwood Schools – that’s what the schools adopted by the Benwood Foundation have become known as. Swanson’s a former teacher and principal. Her job now is to figure out what good teaching is and how to teach that to other teachers. One of the first things she notices about Curtis’ class the day we visit is the way he talks to his students about how learning is a process: it’s normal to be confused.

Swanson: You know, he explained that to them: “It’s OK to feel like you don’t understand. We’re going to continue working on this, and you will catch on.” That’s important.

Swanson says in a school culture dominated by standardized testing, some teachers make the mistake of focusing too much on teaching students how to pass tests. But she says in Curtis’ class, the goal is to really understand the math. He’s excited about learning, and his students are too.

…..[More of Joe Curtis’ classroom]

Swanson says she’s been in too many classrooms that are nothing like Joe Curtis’. The teacher stands up, lectures, maybe gets a little question and answer going, but is basically oblivious to what the students are thinking; what they need. What Swanson’s learned about effective teachers is they are constantly monitoring what is happening with their students: Who gets it? Who doesn’t? Who needs help? Who needs a challenge? And they deliver on that – immediately. Something else Swanson says is absolutely essential: teachers need to really know the material they’re teaching.


Penny King and Linda Land are first-grade teachers at Woodmore Elementary, one of the Benwood Schools. They’ve been teaching here for 26 years.


Land: I felt like I was failing the children. You know I was not doing what I needed to do for them.

Land says getting fired when the Benwood Initiative began was traumatic and awful. But when she was offered her job back and asked if she was willing to put in the work to turn the school around, she said absolutely yes. So did her colleague Penny King.

King: I’m not going to say that I was a bad teacher to start with but I do think it improved us as to the quality of what we were doing. It made us think more about the way we went about things and what we needed to do to make sure that all children were successful.


They all say they’re grateful for how the Benwood Initiative has helped them develop as teachers. Linda Land.

Land: Of all of my years of teaching, these last eight to ten years I probably have done a better job than I’ve ever done before. Only because of the way we now do things.

And indeed, teachers in the Benwood Schools are doing a better job now according to an analysis by Education Sector, an independent think tank in Washington, D.C. Researchers at Education Sector looked at how much teachers in the Benwood Schools were raising their student test scores. What they found is that before the Benwood Initiative began, teachers in the Benwood schools were far less effective at raising student test scores than teachers at other schools in the district. But six years after the Benwood Initiative began, the Benwood teachers were more effective than other teachers in the district. And this was mostly the same teachers. Two-thirds of the teachers who were fired got their jobs back. The Education Sector report concludes that what happened in the Benwood schools shows that teacher effectiveness is not a “fixed” trait. Teachers can – and did – get better.

Challener: Some years there were big jumps and some years they were little jumps but it was just a steady upward climb.

This is Dan Challener of the Public Education Foundation talking about the overall test score growth in the Benwood Schools. Before the Benwood Initiative began, only about half the students were passing state tests in reading and language arts. Five years later, more than 80 percent were. There were big gains in math, too. For Challener and others who have been working in the Benwood Schools, the clear lesson is that just firing teachers is not the way to go.

Challener: Yes, there were some teachers there who weren’t doing nearly what they needed to do. But the issue was raising the skill level and the effectiveness of the large group of teachers we had.

Challener believes the majority of teachers in America today are satisfactory or good and the key is to make them better. He believes it can be done. His colleague Susan Swanson does, too. But she’s quick to point out that removing a third of the teachers from the Benwood Schools was a big reason the project succeeded.

Swanson: There are some people who should not be teachers. There are some people who should not be doctors. There are some people who should not be insurance sales people. And they’ve gotten into the wrong field.

But how can you tell who will be a good teacher; who has the potential to get better? Research shows most teachers are not particularly effective in their first year. You have to give them time to learn. But at what point do you pull the plug? And how do you know if it’s the teacher’s problem, or if they are just not getting the right help and training? These are the trickiest questions, and Swanson doesn’t have definitive answers. But one thing she knows for sure is that not every teacher can be like Joe Curtis.

Swanson: Not everybody’s going to be a superstar.

Swanson says it takes lots of skills to be an effective teacher. You need to know how to manage a class; plan lessons; ask good questions; give clear directions. She thinks most of these skills can be taught. But there is a way that truly great teachers put it all together — a certain something that defies definition. It’s like the difference between a back-up player in the NBA …

Swanson: …and the person who can put it all together in a game, in a game situation. That’s harder to teach.

Swanson believes it’s possible to take “pretty good” teachers and make them better. But truly great teachers like Joe Curtis? She thinks they are born and not made. And she says we shouldn’t expect every teacher to be like Joe Curtis, just like we shouldn’t expect every basketball player to be like Michael Jordan or LeBron James. But we should expect all teachers to be good, Swanson says, and they can be better, if the nation is willing to invest in the right training and support.

Stephen Smith: The Benwood Initiative provides evidence that teachers can improve. But can the Benwood Initiative be replicated elsewhere? It’s not as simple as just copying what they did in Tennessee. In Chattanooga there was private money. Not every school system will attract a foundation willing to invest millions of dollars. And even though students in the Benwood Schools are doing better than they were, they’re still not keeping up with students in higher-income schools. Poor children will probably always struggle to keep up, even if they get the best teachers. Poverty itself is an impediment to doing well – in school, and in life. Teachers alone can’t change that. That said, it’s also clear that teachers have a big role to play. The research shows that kids do better in school if they get good teachers, and if they avoid bad ones. America will need to find more innovative ways to improve teachers, and to weed out bad teaching, if it hopes to make a difference in the lives of poor children.

via Testing Teachers — American RadioWorks — Transcript.

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