New ideas for better teachers and schools

Sixth grade teacher Sandy Tevelin (R) shows students how to win as they enjoy a mah-jongg game during their lunch break at Thomas Jefferson Middle School in Arlington, Va.

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Kai Ryssdal: This is education week for the Obama Administration. The president's Economic Recovery Advisory Board met this morning. They were talking about private partnerships with community colleges. There's a big community college summit at the White House tomorrow afternoon.

But a lot of the attention paid to education recently has been K through 12. Specifically, whether using kids' test scores is a fair way to grade teachers. There's some research out there that says test scores can be used with a bunch of other measurements to help find the most effective and least effective teachers in a given school. The problem is figuring out how to help the broad middle group be better teachers.

A group of schools in Tennessee has proven that can be done, as Emily Hanford of American RadioWorks reports.


Emily Hanford: About 10 years ago, education leaders in Chattanooga, set out to fix the worst elementary schools -- all of them in predominantly poor neighborhoods. Most students were making little or no progress on state tests. But in every school, there was at least one teacher whose students ended up doing better.

Dan Challener is a leader of the effort.

Dan Challener: And that was kind of an "A-ha!" moment, because when we realized that there was at least one great teacher in every school, it told us that the challenge now was to increase the number of great teachers so all kids can learn.

Their first move was to fire all the teachers -- even the good ones -- and make them reapply for their jobs. Then, with money from local foundations, they set out to attract new talent. They offered bonuses, mortgage deals and free graduate school tuition. But in the end, the city schools didn't end up recruiting a whole new crop of teachers. More than two-thirds of the fired teachers got their jobs back. So Chattanooga's challenge was to figure out how to make those teachers better.

Teacher giving instructions to class

Joe Curtis is one of the superstar teachers, whose students tend to make big gains on the tests. Curtis has been teaching for nearly 30 years. Ask him how he became a good teacher and he doesn't talk about graduate school or professional development days. He talks about other teachers -- Talking to them, trying out their methods and watching them in action.

It sounds like a simple idea, but in fact most teachers don't get a chance to do this, at least not in a formal or ongoing way. That's changed in Chattanooga. Joe Curtis has been promoted to a new position called "lead teacher." The principal arranges other teachers' schedules so they can watch Curtis teach.

Heather Long: Every time he gets up, I'm like, "Oh that's a great way to approach that." You know, you just don't think of it.

Heather Long is a new teacher. Not only does she watch Curtis teach, he watches her and gives feedback and advice. They also plan lessons together. Curtis works with the veterans in his building too. Everything teachers in Chattanooga do now is rooted in the idea that they get better when they work together.

That's a radical change, says Penny King, who's taught here for 26 years.

Penny King: You just did your own thing and you didn't want anybody to find out what you were doing or how you were doing and if your kids were successful that was good but you weren't going to tell them. 'Cause you didn't want them to know how your kids were so good, because it was a competition. Now it's not a competition; now it's a team.

King says she and her colleagues have learned all kinds of new teaching techniques. One thing they've learned: Don't lecture at the students. Their goal now is to get the kids thinking and talking. All the teachers I spoke with say they're better than they were.

Here's Linda Land.

Linda Land: Of all of my years of teaching, these last eight to 10 years, I probably have done a better job than I've ever done before.

And indeed, the teachers are doing a better job according to the measure that matters most these days: Test scores. Before the initiative, teachers in Chattanooga's worst city schools were far less effective at raising student test scores than teachers at suburban schools. Six years later, teachers at the city schools were more effective than their colleagues in the suburbs.

For Dan Challener and others working in Chattanooga, the lesson is that teachers can get better. He says just firing them 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 most teachers in America today are satisfactory or good, and the key is to make them better. He doesn't think Chattanooga has all the answers, but he says giving teachers the chance to collaborate and learn from each other is crucial to helping them improve.

I'm Emily Hanford for Marketplace.

Ryssdal: Emily's reporting is part of an American Radioworks documentary called Testing Teachers.

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