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Published: Thursday, 6/16/2011

Making the grade

Many factors create effective public schools, and more than one path leads to student success. So Toledo Public Schools officials must keep an open mind as they look at innovations in other districts that might apply here.

A special report in The Blade this week detailed how the performance of students in Chattanooga, Tenn., improved significantly when teachers and administrators got meaningful support and training, were rewarded for success, and were held accountable for failure.

The first lesson is that everything costs money. A decade ago, two public foundations in Chattanooga — the Benwood Foundation and the Public Education Foundation — contributed $7.5 million to help make basic changes at nine inner-city schools. More money was spent on professional development, experts and consultants trained teachers, extra administrators were hired so they could spend more time in classrooms, and faculty and schools were rewarded financially for success.

The foundations have kept their hands on. The Public Education Foundation hired a director who is actively involved in the project. That doesn’t always sit well with school board members, but it removes some of the politics that often blunts students’ progress.

The Benwood Initiative shows that most teachers want to and can succeed when they have the right tools. A decade ago, many teachers is Chattanooga were frustrated, burned out, or too inexperienced to deal with the depth of the school system’s problems.

Added support, mentoring, sharing of ideas, accountability, and freedom to do what works appear to have changed the district’s culture. Now teachers are proud of what they do, excited to go to work, open to seeking help with problems, and secure enough to experiment with different teaching techniques.

Principals in Chattanooga got training in time management, handling budgets, discipline, and community relations. They have a lot of freedom to adapt methodologies to their schools, but they also meet regularly to pick colleagues’ brains about what works and what doesn’t.

They also have the power to hire their staffs. In TPS, by contrast, the district hires teachers who get to choose their schools based on seniority. The youngest, least experienced teachers often end up in the schools with the biggest problems — a prescription for student failure and teacher burnout.

No two school systems, faculties, or student bodies are the same. Educational philosophies and techniques that work in one school, for one teacher, or with one student often fail elsewhere.

But the basic principles remain the same. Training, support, recognition for success, accountability for failure, openness to new ideas, and a culture of collaboration all contribute to schools where students succeed and where faculty and administrators are eager to work.

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