Helping teachers improve: The real secret to Benwood's success

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A new report from Education Sector offers a helpful new perspective on a well-publicized effort to improve student performance in Hamilton County, Tennessee's lowest performing schools. Though the Benwood Initiative has been a personal fave of school reformers, researchers, and the media, Education Sector plays myth buster in its latest release. True, teachers from the Benwood schools went from being far less effective than their district counterparts when the initiative started in 2001 to performing above the district average in 2006. False, the Initiative is successful because of first firing all the teachers who had been working at these eight schools and second, paying out healthy bonuses.

Instead, Ed Sector offers evidence that Benwood teachers improved because the district was committed to helping them get a lot better. Concludes the report's authors: "It seems that what the Benwood teachers needed most were not new peers or extra pay--although both were helpful. Rather, they needed support and recognition from the whole community, resources and tools to improve them as professionals, and school leaders who could help them help their students."

By way of evidence, Ed Sector produces some telling facts based on new data they commissioned for the study. First, even though the district did fire all of the existing teachers, making them reapply for their jobs, more than two-thirds of teachers were rehired, and only a handful were relocated elsewhere. Thus, the data demonstrating teacher effectiveness in the Benwood schools point to professional growth primarily among existing teachers, not new recruits.

Second, even though the district offered financial incentives (e.g., tuition reimbursement, mortgage loans, performance bonuses) to teachers working in the Benwood schools, the new teachers in these schools reported that working with a visionary principal in a professionally supportive environment outweighed the extra money.

The district adopted a variety of strategies to help teachers improve: requiring assistant principals to spend at least 50 percent of their time monitoring and supporting teachers; designating a reading specialist to each school and using DIBELS to monitor student progress in reading; assigning instructional support staff to individual schools; creating new consulting teacher positions; and giving teachers the tools and resources to use student achievement data to guide their instruction. In addition, the district and union worked together to negotiate a new contract that included major changes in teacher transfer policy and hiring timelines to facilitate recruiting and hiring better teachers.

Perhaps former Superintendent Jesse Register said it best: "Everyone wants to talk about the pay plan. And people did receive it, and it did change community attitude toward these schools. But it was one piece of a bigger puzzle. We did all these other things too."