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Teachers participate in discussion about recruiting teachers to low-performing schools at a T3 conference.

Teachers participate in discussion about recruiting teachers to low-performing schools at a T3 conference.

To turn around failing schools, Nashville turns to experienced teachers

After leaving an underfunded, low-performing school for a more affluent one, Boston teacher Krissy Vilagie never thought she’d go back to that tougher kind of teaching assignment.

“You get used to having resources,” she said.

Vilagie liked her job at the more affluent school, but also wanted to advance her career. She hated the thought of leaving the classroom to become an administrator.

Enter Turnaround Teacher Teams Initiative, a partnership between the Boston Public Schools and Teach Plus,  a non-profit devoted to leveraging teachers’ careers while keeping them in the classroom. The program, typically called T3, incentivized experienced teachers to go to the system’s lowest performing schools by offering them a pay raise to lead teams of other teachers in turnaround efforts.

The purpose of the program is to address a confounding truth in education: schools with high concentrations of poverty often aren’t staffed with experienced, effective teachers, even though studies show that having even just a few effective teachers in a school raises student achievement.

Now, Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools is following T3’s example as it embarks on its own effort to recruit experienced teachers to its lowest performing schools. By January, officials hope to have recruited 100 teachers to schools in the bottom 25 percent of schools statewide. The goal is to raise student achievement and build a more collaborative school culture, said Katie Cour, the director of talent strategy for Metro Nashville Public Schools.

Cour said district officials hope to find half the teachers already working in Nashville schools, and half from around the country. The district will also recruit a handful of principals.

Teachers will have 11-month, rather than 10-month contracts — an annual salary bump of about $6,000 — and take on extra leadership activities, like facilitating classroom observations and feedback from other teachers.

Vilagie has never regretted returning to the world of low-performing, high-poverty schools to be a T3 leader. She said she enjoys working closely with other teachers for both the sense of camaraderie and the improvement she sees in her students. She said her teaching has also improved as a result of being observed by her teammates and getting feedback from them.

Initiatives like T3 and Nashville’s new recruitment project are part of a growing trend that recognizes that teachers often crave leadership opportunities even more than salary increases, and that when they’re granted them, achievement goes up. Other examples include the Teacher Peer Excellence Groups being piloted across the state, and a program where veteran teachers coach newcomers and struggling teachers in Shelby County Schools.

“Five or six years ago, we tried to get people to move for money alone, but that’s not why teachers teach,” Cour said.  “You can’t just pay them more. Our package is going to be much more support based, and aiming at things teachers do care more about — planning time, networking with their colleagues.”

Stephen Henry, the president of the Metropolitan Nashville Educators Association, the local branch of the state’s largest teachers union, said teachers left the low-performing schools quickly during Metro Nashville’s previous attempt to get effective teachers to struggling schools, because they wanted more than money.

“What they really wanted was a leader who was inspired and they knew was there to support them and their work,” he said.

National studies have also shown that teachers want more than money as inducements to go to high-needs schools. Steven Glazerman did a study of teacher incentives for the research group Mathematica. He found that money alone was rarely enough to sway the best teachers to transfer to low-performing schools, although the ones that did transfer for higher pay boosted student achievement.

The idea for T3 came about when a group of Teach Plus teaching fellows met in 2009 with Carol Johnson, then the superintendent of Boston Public Schools, and currently Shelby County School’s interim academic advisor. One fellow asked Johnson what kept her up at night. She replied that it was trying to figure out how to match the best teachers with the highest need kids. The teaching fellows designed a proposal for T3, and Johnson enthusiastically signed on.

Since then, schools with T3 teachers’ — which had been the lowest performing in Massachusetts — have seen their scores meet or exceed the district average. T3 has expanded to Washington, D.C., and Indianapolis.

The T3 model of turnaround — in which only six or seven new teachers are introduced into a failing school, and the school retains the rest of its staff — is much less extensive than other turnaround models. In Tennessee, for example, the lowest-performing schools can be taken over by the state and converted to charters, or closed altogether.

Like other urban districts across the country, Nashville has been embroiled in a debate over failing schools, which came to a head in a series of community meetings this fall. Those meetings were held at schools eligible for drastic turnaround models because of their low test scores. Parents attending the meetings repeatedly asked to be spared the turmoil of all-new teachers or leadership.

That isn’t to say that more disruptive tactics to boost achievement at low-performing schools haven’t worked. In Nashville, a school taken over by the state and converted into a charter has thrived. Chris Reynolds, the CEO of LEAD Public Schools, the charter organization that converted the school, notes that part of the success was due to the knowledge of teachers who had been at the school in its previous iteration. Another school LEAD now manages, Cameron College Prep, was one of the fastest improving schools in the state.

In Memphis, dramatic turnaround efforts have had more mixed results, with some schools’ scores not being turned around at all, and in fact, getting worse.

And it’s unlikely that any one method will transform a struggling school into a standout by itself, Henry said.

“You can’t just take one deep breath and blow out a forest fire,” he said. 

Based on turnover rates typical at high-poverty schools, Cour said there will be enough openings for six or seven teachers at participating Nashville schools, and teachers with passing teacher evaluation scores will not be displaced.

“We can’t do it (turn around schools) without our current teachers,” Cour said.

District officials have already started contacting teachers from across the country they think might be a good fit due to past experience in turnaround schools. Cour said the district will budget for the new initiative, which will also include a few principal recruits, and will not rely on one-time grants.

“The district will pay for what we prioritize, and this is a priority,” she said.