A radical experiment to get good teachers to work in bad schools

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Veronica Anderson, editor

Veronica Anderson, editor

At a summit on teacher quality this winter, Schools Chief Arne Duncan made an ambitious pledge. He promised that Chicago Public Schools would triple the number of master teachers over the next three years and would make sure that more than half of them work in the lowest-performing schools.

If there’s one thing most everyone in and around education can agree on, it’s this: Kids in classrooms led by good teachers can learn more and do better than kids in classrooms led by mediocre teachers. Too few classrooms in the worst urban schools are led by the best the teaching profession has to offer.

Leaders of the Chicago Teachers Union leaders have agreed help the district reach its target of 1,200 teachers with National Board certification by 2008. (There are 377 of them now.) District administrators are plotting strategies to step up candidate recruitment and support. And two foundations—The Chicago Public Education Fund and The Chicago Community Trust—are kicking in a good portion of the money to make it happen. These are all important commitments.

However, on their own, a few master teachers working at one school are unlikely to spur a schoolwide turnaround in student performance. Principal support is crucial, as is finding a way for master teachers to share their knowledge and expertise with other faculty. But dysfunctional schools stuck at the bottom of the heap need more.

Consider a five-year, foundation-supported initiative to turn around the nine worst schools in Chattanooga, Tenn. Ninety-five percent of the children at the predominantly African-American schools come from low-income families. When the initiative began in 2001, only 16 percent of students at those schools were reading at grade level.

Funders and educators there set an ambitious goal—even before the federal No Child Left Behind law was passed—to get 100 percent of 3rd-graders reading at grade level. Their chosen strategy to achieve this was getting more effective teachers in classrooms. The cost: $6 million.

In the first two years years, the initiative posted impressive results. By 2003, 36 percent of 3rd-graders were reading on level; in 2004, about 50 percent of kids were hitting the mark, though the state that year changed the scale. Dan Challener, president of the Public Education Fund in Chattanooga, a leading funder, describes how the schools got there:

“There were five strategies behind this initiative: Set clear goals. Build strong leaders. Invest in effective teaching. Review data constantly. Provide incentives.

“The district conducted focus groups with educators, parents and kids to find out what was going on in these schools. We learned that 50 percent of teachers in those schools were new and inexperienced. As a result, we set two additional goals. Make sure kids made at least a year’s progress. Raise teachers’ skills in these schools to match the districtwide average.

“The superintendent replaced six of the nine principals and hired new assistant principals. Each school also received a full-time teacher mentor. These three staffers were charged with making regular visits to teachers’ classrooms. The motto was, ‘Every classroom, every day.’ Teaching became a public act.

“Teachers at those schools were offered a chance to buy into the new program. Some 204 did; another 60 did not, and many of them got jobs in other schools. The mayor offered salary bonuses to teachers who were the most effective. Funders picked up the tab for teachers to pursue a master’s degree in urban education. Other financial incentives included free legal advice and forgivable loans for teachers who purchase homes in nine selected neighborhoods and live in them for five years.”

Of course, these schools have access to sophisticated data on performance through Tennessee’s value-added testing, which tracks individual students’ test scores by classroom. Such technical capabilities are not yet available here. What also is missing in Chicago’s teacher quality push is Chattanooga’s forceful, comprehensive approach.

Chicago’s School Board can replace weak principals at low-performing CPS schools. It also can marshal resources from private funders to offer teachers incentives to improve their skills. The board has the power to do this. Does it also have the guts?