The Benwood Plan: A Lesson in Comprehensive Teacher Reform

Sheila Grant

Elena Silva
Education Sector
April 2008

Something is causing praiseworthy gains in the performance of students in inner-city Chattanooga schools. But what? Is it the cash incentives and reapplication process? Maybe not, or at least not mostly. Instead, it seems to be that "helping teachers improve the quality of their instruction" was key to the success of Chattanooga's "Benwood Plan," which, beginning in 2001, introduced financial incentives (free master's degrees, mortgage loans, and merit pay bonuses) to attract quality teachers to a set of underperforming schools in that corner of the Chattanooga area. The revamping of the schools was made possible by a $5 million grant from the Chattanooga-based Benwood Foundation. Benwood also forced all teachers to reapply for their jobs and replaced those deemed unworthy of rehiring. After doing some digging, though, Elena Silva has found that "most of the teachers who reapplied for their jobs were hired back, and less than 20 of the 300 teachers in the Benwood schools received bonuses in the first year of the much-touted financial-incentive plan." Silva credits the new climate created by other Benwood reforms for causing, among other accomplishments, third graders in the eight schools to raise their reading scores from 53 percent passing to 80 percent passing in the last five years on the state test. As part of the reform effort, district staff were placed inside schools to give teachers more hands-on support, outside funding created a leadership institute for principals, some schools received reading specialists, and assistant principals were required to spend at least 50 percent of their time monitoring academics. Teachers began receiving additional support from full-time "teaching consultants" who were hired to help develop curricula, align instruction with standards, and examine teacher practices. These factors, along with the financial incentives, deserve praise for catalyzing the gains Benwood students have realized. Hamilton County's then-Superintendent Jesse Register spearheaded the Benwood reforms--he says that mayoral attention was key to the effort, and that it "sent a strong signal to the entire community that these weren't second-class jobs, that we valued these schools and these teachers." Find the report here.