Federal Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings visiting a Chattanooga school in 2005.

Bonuses for teachers based on value-added measures. Firing and selective re-hiring of all teachers. Were these the key reforms responsible for the significant improvement of the “Benwood eight,” a group of struggling schools in central Chattanooga?

Elena Silva of Education Sector argues in Phi Delta Kappan that what really turned around these schools was validation, support, and on-going professional development for Chattanooga’s existing teaching force:

[It} would be a mistake to conclude that efforts to bring different, more effective teachers into the Benwood eight represent the only — or even the primary — lesson of the Chattanooga reforms. What 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 as professionals, and school leaders who could help them help their students.

The pay incentives didn’t attract many new teachers, Silva says, but they were “a way of signaling that the local community valued the Benwood teachers and supported their work.”

Silva says that though the district made all teachers in the Benwood schools re-apply for their jobs, the majority were re-hired and the teaching staff in these schools did not change significantly, although the numbers she cites suggest that the re-hiring process was more than just letting go of a few bad apples.

If cleaning house and providing performance incentives weren’t wholly responsible for improvement, what was? The answer is all the more crucial given the blitz of new and expanded merit pay plans, teacher-linked data collection, and aggressive evaluation of teachers in districts across the country.

Silva believes it was a host of reforms focusing on supporting teachers and improving their practice. The district surveyed teachers and principals already deemed effective on the basis of test scores or principal nominations to find out what they required to be successful:

Topping the list for principals was better staff morale and better quality teachers. Teachers suggested more opportunities for collaboration, mentor and peer support, constructive principal feedback, and more time for instruction and lesson preparation.

In response, they created new support positions, from literacy coaches and consulting teachers who worked with teachers to leadership coaches who worked with administrators and school leadership teams. They also provided a good deal of professional development to help teachers understand and use data to improve student achievement. A number of organizations also offered money for free masters degrees for teachers, middle and high school improvement, and student programs such as mentoring.

Silva points to surveys showing improved retention, high satisfaction with working conditions at the Benwood schools, and increased effectiveness of individual teachers (as measured by Tennessee’s value-added analysis) as evidence that it was the teacher-centered reform that really made the difference in improving outcomes in Chattanooga.