At what cost

Do schools lose ground when losing top teachers to turnaround schools? A little, but it’s worth it, says Tennessee research

PHOTO: Brandon Dill/The Commercial Appeal
Sixth-grade teacher James Johnson leads his students in a gameshow-style lesson on energy at Chickasaw Middle School in 2014. Chickasaw was among the first Memphis schools to join Shelby County Schools' Innovation Zone, which recruits top teachers with bonuses and extra pay.

Since 2012, Tennessee has used financial incentives to lure some of its most effective teachers to work in struggling schools under an intense turnaround model known as the Innovation Zone.

The strategy appears to have worked. But even as students in iZone schools have shown academic gains, one question has nagged: Did students in schools left behind have to lose in order for students in iZone schools to win?

Researchers examining student achievement in the exited schools are now offering answers. In short, their analysis shows that those students experienced a small negative effect, especially in reading and science. But it wasn’t enough, they concluded, to offset the positive work happening in the iZone.

That’s good news for a state that has invested heavily in school turnaround work through initiatives like the iZone. And it suggests that offering financial incentives to recruit the best teachers to struggling schools is a good strategy to equalize access to high-quality instruction.

The analysis, released Thursday, was conducted by researchers at Vanderbilt University and the University of Kentucky through the Tennessee Education Research Alliance, a partnership between Vanderbilt and the Tennessee Department of Education.

Tennessee’s vaunted iZone serves mostly minority and economically disadvantaged students in chronically struggling schools. To turn them around, the model gives local districts the freedom and funding to add resources, write their own curriculum, and extend the school day. But the recruitment of top principals and teachers is its linchpin, incentivizing the work with hiring bonuses, retention bonuses, and extra pay.

In all, 652 teachers transferred into one of 26 iZone schools in Memphis, Nashville and Chattanooga in the three years ending in the spring of 2015. Most came from within their districts.

Researchers looked at the data of more than a third who previously taught grades and subjects that were tested by the state. They compared gains in grades that lost their teachers to the iZone to other grades in the same school that didn’t lose teachers to the iZone. The loss was small, and researchers concluded that achievement gains in iZone schools more than made up for it.

“It shows that this strategy of providing bonuses and salary increases to recruit highly effective teachers to low-performing schools is still worth pursuing,” said Gary Henry, one of the researchers and a professor of public policy and education at Vanderbilt University.

“And based on our research, communities that are worried about losing teachers to the iZone shouldn’t be as worried,” he added. “These are usually higher-performing schools that have many natural advantages in recruiting effective teachers.”

At the heart of the iZone turnaround model is the reality that low-performing schools struggle to compete for the best teachers. When they get extra money, they often seek to reduce class size, then end up hiring novice teachers or those who aren’t trained to teach the assigned subject matter.

“Turnaround work is very difficult,” Henry said, “with extra duties, extra requirements, long days that even sometimes include walking their students home because of potentially unsafe conditions. Without incentives, teachers often gravitate to other schools where they can feel more rewarded and have fewer challenges. But this model levels the playing field. And our study makes it appear that it’s not coming at a large cost to the schools that lose these teachers to the iZone.”

Not all of the top teachers recruited to the iZone came from high-performing schools. About a fourth left other struggling schools known as “priority schools,” which are academically in the state’s bottom 5 percent. (iZone schools are “priority schools” too.) So the researchers also looked into the impact on priority schools that were left behind — knowing that teacher turnover is more harmful for lower-achieving schools. They found that the effect was even smaller than on non-priority schools, possibly because they usually lost a single teacher instead of multiple teachers.

“It could have been a more negative scenario,” Henry said, “if teachers were simply being pulled from one priority school to another in the iZone and the students in schools that were left behind were losing.”

FIVE YEARS IN: Tennessee’s two big school turnaround experiments yield big lessons

You can read the full research brief below:

Clarification, February 1, 2018: This story has been updated to clarify that the Tennessee Research Alliance is a partnership of Vanderbilt University and the Tennessee Department of Education.

meet the fellows

Meet the 38 teachers chosen by SCORE to champion education around Tennessee

The year-long fellowships offered by the State Collaborative on Reforming Education were awarded to 38 Tennessee educators.

Six teachers from Memphis have been awarded fellowships that will allow them to spend the next year supporting better education in Tennessee.

The year-long fellowships, offered by the State Collaborative on Reforming Education, train and encourage teachers and other educators to speak at events, write publicly about their experiences, and invite policymakers to their classrooms. The program is in its fifth year through the nonpartisan advocacy and research organization, also known as SCORE, which was founded by former U.S. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist from Tennessee.

The fellowships, known as the Tennessee Educator Fellowships, have been awarded to 150 educators since the program’s launch in 2014. This year’s class of 38 educators from around the state have a combined 479 years of experience.

“The fellows’ diverse perspectives and experiences are invaluable as they work both inside and outside the classroom and participate in state conversations on preparing all students for postsecondary and workforce success,” SCORE President and CEO Jamie Woodson said in a news release.

Besides the Shelby County teachers, the group also includes educators who work for the state-run Achievement School District, public Montessori schools, and a school dedicated to serving children with multiple disabilities.

The 2018-19 fellows are:

  • Nathan Bailey, career technical education at Sullivan North High School, Sullivan County Schools
  • Kalisha Bingham-Marshall, seventh-grade math at Bolivar Middle School, Hardeman County Schools
  • Sam Brobeck, eighth-grade math at Memphis Grizzlies Preparatory Charter Middle School. Shelby County Schools
  • Monica Brown, fourth-grade English language arts and social studies at Oakshire Elementary School, Shelby County Schools
  • Nick Brown, school counselor at Westmoreland Elementary School, Sumner County Schools
  • Sherwanda Chism, grades 3-5 English language arts and gifted education at Winridge Elementary School, Shelby County Schools
  • Richard J. Church, grades 7-8 at Liberty Bell Middle School, Johnson City Schools
  • Ada Collins, third grade at J.E. Moss Elementary School, Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools
  • Lynn Cooper,  school counselor at South Pittsburg High School, Marion County Schools
  • Colletta M. Daniels, grades 2-4 special education at Shrine School, Shelby County Schools
  • Brandy Eason, school counselor at Scotts Hill Elementary School, Henderson County Schools
  • Heather Eskridge, school counselor at Walter Hill Elementary School, Rutherford County Schools
  • Klavish Faraj, third-grade math and science at Paragon Mills Elementary School, Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools
  • Mavis Clark Foster, fifth-grade English language arts and science at Green Magnet Academy, Knox County Schools
  • Ranita Glenn, grades 2-5 reading at Hardy Elementary School, Hamilton County Department of Education
  • Telena Haneline, first grade at Eaton Elementary School, Loudon County Schools
  • Tenesha Hardin, first grade at West Creek Elementary School, Clarksville-Montgomery County Schools
  • Thaddeus Higgins, grades 9-12 social studies at Unicoi County High School, Unicoi County Schools
  • Neven Holland, fourth-grade math at Treadwell Elementary School, Shelby County Schools
  • Alicia Hunker, sixth-grade math at Valor Flagship Academy, Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools
  • Alex Juneau, third grade at John Pittard Elementary School, Murfreesboro City Schools
  • Lyndi King, fifth-grade English language arts at Decatur County Middle School, Decatur County Schools
  • Rebecca Ledebuhr, eighth-grade math at STEM Preparatory Academy, Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools
  • Aleisha McCallie, fourth-grade math and science at East Brainerd Elementary School, Hamilton County Department of Education.
  • Brian McLaughlin, grades 10-12 math at Morristown-Hamblen High School West, Hamblen County Schools
  • Caitlin Nowell, seventh-grade English language arts at South Doyle Middle School, Knox County Schools
  • Paula Pendergrass, advanced academics resources at Granbery Elementary School,  Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools
  • Julie Pepperman, eighth-grade science at Heritage Middle School, Blount County Schools
  • Kelly Piatt, school counselor at Crockett County High School, Crockett County Schools
  • Ontoni Reedy, grades 1-3 at Community Montessori, Jackson-Madison County Schools
  • Tiffany Roberts, algebra and geometry at Lincoln County Ninth Grade Academy, Lincoln County Schools
  • Craig Robinson, grades 3-5 science at Georgian Hills Achievement Elementary, Achievement School District
  • Jen Semanco, 10th- and 11th-grade English language arts at Chattanooga Girls Leadership Academy, Hamilton County Department of Education
  • Amanda Smithfield, librarian at Hume-Fogg Academic Magnet School, Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools
  • Cyndi Snapp, fourth-grade math at Carter’s Valley Elementary School, Hawkins County Schools
  • David Sneed, 12th-grade English at Soddy Daisy High School, Hamilton County Department of Education
  • Yolanda Parker Williams, fifth-grade math at Karns Elementary School, Knox County Schools
  • Maury Wood II, grades 4-6 technology at Westhills Elementary School, Marshall County Schools

work hard play hard

Memphis teachers share basketball, even if they don’t share a district

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede

Freedom Preparatory Academy is gathering teachers from district-run and charter schools to play basketball. The teachers, mostly black men, have turned it into a networking opportunity as well as a way to let off steam.