Testing Teachers
Testing Teachers


Stephen Smith: From American Public Media, this is an American RadioWorks documentary.

Pres. Barack Obama: American prosperity has long rested on how well we educate our children.

But American schools are lagging behind, and poor children especially are struggling. Some people say the problem is teachers…

Susan Swanson: We've let too many people into the profession.

Emily Baker: You either do your job and you're effective, or you gotta go.

But what is a good teacher, and how do teachers become good?

Randi Weingarten: This is not a Nike commercial. Just do it. That doesn't work in teaching.

In the coming hour, "Testing Teachers" from American RadioWorks.

First, this news.

Part One

Woman's voice: Congratulations on getting yourselves here from all across the country. From New York… from Philadelphia… from Detroit… from California… And I want to know if the lady from Florida made it.

Stephen Smith: It's a Saturday afternoon and a group of teachers is protesting at the U.S. Department of Education in Washington, D.C. Their signs say, "End the Attacks Against Teachers." Across the country, many teachers are upset.

Kathy Luther: I've been at Central Falls for 28 years, and I have done nothing to deserve to be fired. Absolutely nothing. I give my heart and my soul to my job and I don't deserve this at all.

Kathy Luther is a math teacher at a high school in Rhode Island. Nearly all of the eleventh graders in her school failed to meet state standards in math last school year. Most also failed in reading and writing. So – in a dramatic move — the school board decided to fire all the teachers in that school. President Obama applauded the decision. And he's been talking about teachers a lot lately.

Pres. Obama: From the moment students enter a school the most important factor in their success is not the color of their skin or the income of their parents; it's the person standing at the front of the classroom.

[Music: Hip Hop Instrumentals 001 — Giallani Records.com]

From American Public Media, this is an American RadioWorks documentary, Testing Teachers. I'm Stephen Smith. Teachers are at the center of education debate today because a huge body of research has proven what may seem obvious: teachers matter. A lot. Studies show students who get the best teachers learn three times as much as students with the worst teachers. And researchers say the big achievement gaps that exist between poor students and their higher-income peers could disappear if poor students had better teachers.

But teacher's unions are pushing back. They say teachers alone can't overcome the achievement gap, and they say teachers are being blamed for much larger problems in America's struggling schools. Over the next hour, we're going to dig into this debate about teachers, and about the research that's fueling it. We'll begin with some history. Here's American RadioWorks producer Emily Hanford.

Emily Hanford: It's possible the nation wouldn't be having this debate about teachers if it weren't for the work of one man – a Stanford economist named Eric Hanushek.

Eric Hanushek: I got into looking at education problems in 1966 when there was a major report for the U.S. government called the Coleman Report.

Congress commissioned a sociologist named James Coleman to conduct a huge study on whether children of different races and backgrounds had access to equal educational opportunity. This was a time when many people had high hopes that improving schools was the key to achieving racial and economic equality. What the Coleman Report found is that poor African-American children were starting kindergarten way behind their higher-income peers, and never catching up -- even when their schools were just as well funded. According to the report, what mattered most in determining a child's success is family background, not what school he or she goes to. Many people took from the report that schools don't make a difference; it's not worth it to put lots of money into education for poor kids. But for economist Eric Hanushek, the idea that schools don't matter just didn't seem right.

Hanushek: It was hard for me to imagine that schools did not have a big impact on kids and that there weren't differences in schools.

So he started doing his own research on what determines student achievement. Coleman had looked at funding, but Hanushek wondered what else besides spending might affect how much students learn. He got his hands on a big set of student test score data from a school system outside of Los Angeles.

Hanushek: I knew the entering achievement scores of kids. And then I could observe their scores at the end of that grade. So I could directly allow for differences in what kids knew at the start and then look at how much had changed over the course of the year.

He was measuring how much each child learned. This was a new way of thinking about school achievement. Rather than looking at what percentage of students were on grade level, Hanushek was trying to figure out how much a school contributed to student learning -- how much did the school grow its students in a year? And what he found surprised him.

Hanushek: There were huge differences in what kids were learning from one classroom to the next.

In other words, some students were learning a lot, and others weren't – and it depended on the teacher they had. This was 1970, and Hanushek has been investigating the impact of teachers on student achievement ever since. His research shows that schools can make a difference, especially for poor children – if the teachers are good. And he says one of the biggest problems facing American schools today is too many bad teachers.

Hanushek: If we had a policy that just could just get rid of the most ineffective teachers, we could have a dramatic impact on student performance. The bottom teachers are really dragging us down a lot.

This idea that better teachers are the key to improving American education is now religion among many school reformers.

David Pinder: All right, gentleman and ladies, we've got less than three minutes. We are headed to first period. No homeroom today.

David Pinder is the principal of McKinley Tech, a public high school in Washington, D.C. It's morning, and he's standing at the door while his students file through a line at the metal detector. They take off their watches and jewelry; put their backpacks on a conveyor belt. With the precision of an airport security guard, Principal Pinder scans each student as they pass.

Pinder: Gentlemen, let's make sure our hats are off, our shirts are in. [Beep of metal detector]

Nearly 90 percent of students in D.C. public schools are black or Hispanic, and most are from poor families. The schools here have long been among the worst in the country.

Pinder: Less than one minute, [claps his hands] less than one minute so let's get rolling! Where we going next year?

McKinley Tech principal David Pinder started his career teaching in a poor city school, much like this one. And that's where he became convinced that teachers matter more than anything else.

Pinder: I don't care what anybody says. I have seen it: A great teacher can change the outcome of lives. And it doesn't matter whether they're doing it in a cave or the most advanced classroom.

But he says a lot of teachers don't believe this. At the school where he taught, Pinder says many teachers just sat around the teachers' lounge blaming the students. They said the kids were too far behind; too messed up to be helped. Pinder says these teachers didn't even try to teach.

Pinder: And I became very disgusted with the fact that teachers were not held accountable. It was always an excuse; it was always a reason. And I didn't want to be a part of it.

So he quit; left teaching altogether; got a job selling cars instead. He says he made a lot of money, but he missed education and eventually decided to look for a way back in. He wanted to work in a place where things would be different.

Michelle Rhee: My name is Michelle Rhee. I'm the chancellor of the Washington, D.C. public schools.

Things changed in Washington when Michelle Rhee took over in June of 2007. Rhee is an ambitious, driven, controversial figure, and she arrived in D.C. with a promise to turn the schools into the best urban district in the nation. She says teachers need to stop blaming students and take responsibility for doing their jobs.

Rhee: We, as the adults in this system, have not only the ability, but the obligation to make sure that kids overcome every single obstacle that's in front of them to ensure that they can achieve at the highest levels.

Rhee was on a mission about teachers long before she got to D.C. She had been a teacher in a tough city school, and was shocked by many of the same things that bothered David Pinder. She quit teaching after three years and went on to found a company called The New Teacher Project, whose mission is to recruit better teachers to inner-city schools. When Rhee became chancellor in D.C., she says it was immediately clear to her what was wrong.

Rhee: You have thousands and thousands of adults who are getting paid to do a job every day, and there was no accountability for what you were producing for kids, or what outcomes the kids were actually seeing. And I think that, fundamentally, was the biggest issue.

When she arrived, only eight percent of D.C. eighth graders were on grade level in math; twelve percent in reading. And yet she says the vast majority of teachers were exceeding expectations on end-of-year performance reviews. This told Michelle Rhee something was wrong with the way D.C. teachers were being evaluated. Indeed, research shows teacher evaluation systems across the country provide little or no reliable information about how effective a teacher really is.

Tim Daly: What we found is that most teachers, in their evaluations, from the first day they enter the classroom, they get essentially perfect evaluations. They're given nothing to work on.

This is Tim Daly, who is now president of The New Teacher Project -- the company Michelle Rhee founded. The New Teacher Project published an influential report on teacher evaluation systems. They called the report "The Widget Effect."

Daly: The widget effect is the phenomenon of treating teachers as interchangeable parts even though they differ extremely widely. And it leads to us ignoring instances of poor performance and instead of transitioning teachers out of the classroom or making them better, we generally ignore that poor performance.

The reasons this happens are complex, but it has a lot to do with unions that have historically fought hard for teachers to be treated the same. It was a way to prevent principals from playing favorites. But Daly and Rhee and others at the forefront of education debate today say this system is outdated and needs to change. Here's Tim Daly.

Daly: The first thing that we have to do with ineffective teachers is identify who they are.

And that means putting new evaluation systems into place – which is what Michelle Rhee did in D.C. Teachers are now judged by how much they raise their students' test scores. They're also observed in their classrooms five times a year by an administrator or master teacher. At the end of the year, each teacher gets a rating: highly effective; effective; minimally effective; or ineffective. Teachers rated highly effective get big bonuses. What happens to teachers who are minimally effective? Under Rhee's plan, their salaries are frozen and they're given one more year.

Rhee: If they do not significantly improve their performance over the following year then they will be terminated from the system. And for teachers who are rated as ineffective, they will immediately be terminated from the system.

The union has raised lots of objections to the evaluation system – among them the extent to which test scores are being used to judge teachers. Even economist Eric Hanushek, who came up with the idea of looking at teachers this way, says using test scores to evaluate individual teachers is problematic: Are the tests measuring what we want students to learn, and should teachers be judged on just one year of results? But Michelle Rhee was not stopped by these concerns. At the end of the first year of the new evaluation system, Rhee announced she was firing 165 D.C. teachers for poor performance. And she put more than 500 on notice that if their performance does not improve in the next school year, they, too, will lose their jobs. That's more than 600 people fired or on notice – about 15 percent of D.C.'s teaching force. On the day she announced the firings, Rhee was asked on CNN whether she was giving teachers enough time to get better.

Rhee (on CNN): Right. I've heard a lot of talk from the teacher's union saying that we should have given the ineffective teachers more time to improve. But the question that I ask to them is: Whose children are we going to put in the classroom of ineffective teachers next year? My two kids go to DCPS. I'm not willing to put my kids in those classrooms, and I don't think any parent anywhere in the city should be forced to make that decision.

And while the union fights the firings, D.C. is busy recruiting new teachers to its schools. Rhee says the city needs teachers who believe all kids can learn, and that it's their responsibility as teachers to make that happen.

Teachers: Good morning. I am so excited! My name is Lavonda Rowe…

It's 8:30 on a Saturday morning and this middle school will soon be full of people who want to be D.C. teachers. They have already made the first cut in a competitive selection process. Now they face a full day of tests and interviews to determine if they have what it takes.

Wyatt Honse: My name is Wyatt Honse. I'm originally from Lake Tahoe, California but I'm currently a senior at Cornell University, studying music and mechanical engineering. I believe very strongly in the importance of educational equality and I think teaching is something that I would really enjoy doing.

The teacher candidates have been divided into small groups. This group has eight people.

Wade: My name is Wade and I have retired and I'm looking for a second career.

Elizabeth: I'm Elizabeth and I'm a senior at Xavier University in Cincinnati. Um…

These candidates are applying to be DC Teaching Fellows, a program that makes the complicated and cumbersome teacher-certification process faster and easier. The goal is to attract smart, well-educated people who might not otherwise have become teachers. Except for Wade, all of the candidates in this room are in their 20s.

Woman: Real quick, if you could just clear everything off of your desk except a writing utensil…

The candidates complete a writing sample and teach a five-minute lesson. Next, they pull their chairs together for a group discussion. There are two women in charge of evaluating these candidates – they're called "selectors" and they're both D.C. teachers who went through the Fellows program. One of them, Sheri Wallach, reads a scenario that the candidates will then discuss.

Sheri Wallach: You are a group of eighth-grade teachers at Central Middle School. Under a new district policy, all eighth-graders must pass rigorous standardized tests this year in math, English, science and social studies before they can be promoted to ninth grade. Last year, 35 percent of Central's eighth-graders passed the tests. In January, the principal convenes the eighth-grade teachers…

Ninety percent of students at this school are poor. Most don't do their homework or come for after-school help. The job candidates are asked to talk about what they would do as teachers to make sure students learn and pass the tests. They begin by talking about setting up a remediation program. Struggling students would be pulled out of their regular classes. Wade, the retired man looking for a second career, does not think this is a good idea.

Wade: If you take the kids out of class they're going to be missing something that could help them on this final test…

But most of the other candidates disagree with Wade. They think a remediation program is the way to go. Everyone struggles with the scenario though. There don't seem to be many good solutions. Soon the conversation turns to the problem of school failure itself – and Wade asks: When students fail, whose fault is it?

Wade: If they fail, whose fault is it? Is it their fault or our fault? It's our fault?
Man: Agreed, yes.
Wade: Totally?

Everyone nods in quick agreement. They say when a student fails it's the teacher's fault. But Wade looks stunned, incredulous. When I talk with the two selectors at the end of the day, Sherri Wallach brings up this moment with Wade.

Wallach: During the discussion group he got into a bit of, not an argument, but went back and forth with a couple of other candidates about whose fault is it if these students fail. And he said, "Is it really our fault?" and he was surprised that other candidates were saying, "Yes, it is."

This was a red flag to Wallach and her colleague. They're looking for teachers who will accept full responsibility for their students' learning. That said, Wallach says she fails every day in her classroom.

Wallach: And that's the truth. You know, whether it be because Brittany is sleeping in the back of the room or because Johnny failed his test, you know, that's a failure on my part. And it happens every day. But I think, what we're looking for…

I push Wallach on this point: Is it really her fault if Brittany is sleeping in the back of the room? And she says: Maybe it's all of our fault – an entire nation that's failed to ever provide a good education to students like Brittany.

Wallach: Is it my fault that her eyes are closed? Hmm, I don't know, maybe not. But I need to do everything that I can to make sure she's awake and learning in my classroom.

Wallach is like a lot of young teachers I met while reporting this story: They've heard or read about the research on the importance of teachers, they believe it, and they want to do their part to finally fix education for poor children. But can teachers really do it all? Even Eric Hanushek, the scholarly grandfather of the teacher-focused movement, says poverty definitely has an impact on student learning.

Hanushek: It certainly makes a huge difference what a child knows coming into school and what the family does for learning. There's absolutely no question about that.

Ever since the Coleman Report, researchers have argued about how much of a child's success or failure is because of poverty or family background, and how much is because of educational opportunities. But Hanushek says it's not a productive argument. He says that for too long poverty and family background have been used as excuses for not helping poor kids. And Hanushek says this has to stop.

Hanushek: It might still pay to do all kinds of things to try to even out the backgrounds and we might worry about having better preschools and a variety of out-of-school programs to help kids, but the place where we control learning most directly is in the schools.

And of all the things a school controls – funding, curriculum, class size – Hanushek says the one thing that has the most impact on student achievement is teachers. Most researchers agree with him on this point – which raises a key question: If the United States is going to overcome the achievement gap, shouldn't the best teachers be teaching the poorest kids?

Marni Barron: My name's Marni Barron. And I've been in education since 1989.

Marni Barron spent most of her career teaching in Michigan. She says she got lots of good training and professional development and felt confident about her teaching skills. Her bosses did too, and promoted her to a job as a coach, helping other teachers get better. But a few years ago Barron started itching for a bigger challenge and decided to apply for a teaching job in Washington, D.C. She wanted to see what she could do with her skills in a really tough, urban setting.

Barron: So I asked for one of the worst schools and they delivered, happily. And I taught sixth grade at Drew Elementary School in Northeast.

Northeast is one of the poorest parts of city. Barron says teaching there was a shock.

Barron: Like I walked in my classroom the first day and there were books dated 1920-something. I never did get any math books the entire year. The children were so incredibly violent with their words, with their actions. The teachers were violent with their words and their actions. The entire school was just a toxic bubble on the verge of explosion.

This was 2007, the same year Michelle Rhee arrived as chancellor. Barron was inspired by Rhee; admired her tough talk about turning around the school system. But Barron has since changed her mind. She says Rhee is too focused on getting rid of teachers, and it's not fair. Teachers were victims of the system, too.

Barron: The teachers almost had to build some sort of a defense to survive. Going in to work, day after day, in something that's chaotic, violent, no solutions and no support.

Barron says of all of the teachers she worked with at Drew Elementary, there was only one who she thought truly deserved to be fired. She says this teacher would not have improved no matter how much training she got. But Barron thinks all of the other teachers could have been good; they just needed help.

Barron: They didn't have the content strategies, training… They had no idea what to do. And quite frankly, had I started there and been there for five, ten years, I probably would have been the same way.

Barron ended up quitting her job at Drew after just one year. She went to another district for a while, but now she's back in D.C. working as a teacher coach. And she thinks the school system needs to do much more to help teachers -- because to teach in a poor city school you need to be better than teachers in other schools. McKinley Tech principal David Pinder agrees with that.

Pinder: You can't come to the District of Columbia public schools and say, "I can do it like every other teacher in every other district and that's good enough." Because it's not.

Pinder says teachers in D.C. need to be the best – better than the teachers he had when he was a kid.

Pinder: They were awful. You know what I mean? They would read right out of the book. They were boring. They were un-engaging… we made up the difference with the bad teaching 'cause we would go home and study, we would go home and get tutoring; we would go home and get additional help from our parents. So we made ineffective teaching look effective by teaching ourselves, essentially.

Education researchers and scientists have learned a lot since Pinder was growing up about how people learn and what works best in the classroom. One thing they've discovered is that the traditional lecture does not work well for a lot of people. Teachers need to do more to engage students, get them talking and asking questions. David Pinder says too many teachers are stuck in the old way of doing things. And while students who are motivated and get support might still do fine, struggling students at struggling schools need a new kind of teacher. So the question is: Do those students need new teachers, or can their current teachers learn to teach better?

[Music: I Am Born — Eligh — Gandalf's Beat Machine Level 2 – Legendary Music]

Stephen Smith: You're listening to an American RadioWorks documentary, "Testing Teachers." I'm Stephen Smith.

Coming up, we'll explore the question, what makes a teacher good? And we'll also ask: Can teachers get better?

Challener: The vast majority of teachers are satisfactory or good and the important thing is to get them to a higher level.

To find out more about why teachers are so important and the debate about using test scores to evaluate them visit our web site, Americanradioworks.org. While you're there, you can sign up for our weekly podcast and check out the many other documentaries that we've produced on education and on economic inequalities. That's Americanradioworks.org.

Support for this program comes from the Spencer Foundation.

"Testing Teachers" continues in just a moment, from American Public Media.


Stephen Smith: From American Public Media, this is an American RadioWorks documentary, "Testing Teachers." I'm Stephen Smith.

This hour we're talking about the importance of teachers. Research shows that having good teachers makes a big difference in how much children learn -- especially children from poor families. But what is a good teacher? And how do teachers become good? Union leaders say these questions are not getting enough attention in the debate about teachers. Randi Weingarten is president of the American Federation of Teachers. She says there's too much talk about firing teachers, and not enough about what it takes for them to get better.

Weingarten: "Just Do It?" That doesn't work in teaching. This is not a Nike commercial.

But what does work? Is it possible to take ineffective teachers and make them better? Economist Eric Hanushek, who has done some of the most influential research about the importance of teachers, thinks the answer is, "no."

Hanushek: My interpretation of the evidence is that teachers are born and not made.

There have been only a few big studies of programs that are supposed to help teachers improve, and the evidence is: they don't work. That's why Hanushek thinks the focus should be getting rid of bad teachers, and recruiting better ones. But there are more than three million teachers in the United States. If every child is really going to have a good teacher, there needs to be some way to help teachers improve. And while the programs that have been studied so far don't seem to work, there is compelling evidence that one small city in the South has figured something out about how to make its teaching force much, much better. American RadioWorks producer Emily Hanford picks up the story.

Emily Hanford: Chattanooga, Tennessee is a city of mountains and valleys. People who live on the mountains are mostly white -- middle and upper class. They send their children to private schools, or to the well-regarded public schools in the hills. Down in the valley people are more likely to be African-American or Hispanic, and poor. They send their children to the city schools, like this elementary school near downtown Chattanooga.

Teacher: I pledge allegiance…
Kids: …to the flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands…

The students start each day crowded into the cafeteria for the Pledge of Allegiance. This school and the other inner city schools of Chattanooga were in rough shape for a long time. In the year 2000 a think tank in Tennessee ranked all of the elementary schools in the state, and nine of the worst 20 schools were here in the city of Chattanooga.

Corrine Allen: In many communities this would create a hue and cry. People would be outraged that such a thing would happen. But there was nothing.

This is Corrine Allen, president of a private foundation in Chattanooga called the Benwood Foundation. She says not many people were paying attention to the quality of education in the city schools.

Allen: It was the kind of thinking – that, "Well, what do you expect? You have poor children of color, living in the inner city. This is what you get."

But Allen says the report startled her. And people in the world of education reform wanted to do something. Here's Dan Challener, president of an education reform group in Chattanooga called The Public Education Foundation.

Dan Challener: This is not what we want our city to be famous for. This is a terrible indictment. We have to do something.

So Challener's group got together with the Benwood Foundation and officials from the school district to figure out what was wrong with the city schools. They were fortunate to have a unique tool at their disposal -- a massive database of test scores unlike any other in the nation. It's called the Tennessee Value-Added Assessment System and its purpose is to isolate the impact of an individual school, or an individual teacher, on how much a student learns each year. When Challener and his colleagues dug into this data, they discovered something surprising that all of the schools had in common.

Challener: What they all had in common -- which was just fascinating – was: each one of them had at least one high-performing teacher – "high performing" defined by the value-added assessment system which Tennessee is now famous for.

Joe Curtis (in classroom): Real quick, what I need for you to do is take out your journal two…

Challener: And Joe Curtis was one of those…

Curtis (in classroom): And I need you on page 311. What page?
Class: Three-eleven.
Curtis: Three-eleven.

Joe Curtis is a math teacher at Hardy elementary school. When the think tank ranked the schools in Tennessee, Hardy was at the bottom of the list: the absolutely worst elementary school in the entire state. Test scores were in the tank – but not in Joe Curtis' class. His student test scores were good; big gains every year.

Challener: And that was a little bit of an "aha" moment because when we realized that there was at least one great teacher in every school it told us that the challenge now was to increase the number of great teachers so all kids could learn.

We're going to return to Joe Curtis' class in a moment. But first, there was something else Dan Challener and his colleagues discovered in the test score data. In the nine city schools that were doing so badly, there were lots of very low-performing teachers too -- teachers whose students were making little or no gains on the tests, year after year after year.

Allen: And sadly, what we found is that a number of these inner-city schools had become safe havens for low-performing teachers.

They called it "dancing the lemons around," says Corrine Allen of the Benwood Foundation. If a school in the suburbs got a teacher who the principal or the parents thought wasn't very good, the teacher didn't get fired; the school system just transferred the teacher to a different school.

Allen: And those transfers kept going until that teacher was in a "forgotten" school.

The forgotten schools were the low-performing city schools. The Benwood Foundation was prepared to kick in millions to make these schools better. But first, the bad teachers had to go. So the superintendent fired them – not just the poor performing teachers, but every single teacher in all nine elementary schools.

Challener: He used something that was in his authority as superintendent called reconstitution.

This is Dan Challener again from the Public Education Foundation.

Challener: Every teacher in those nine buildings had to reapply for their position. And the principal was empowered to say, "Yes, I'd like you to join this new staff," or, "No, I wouldn't."

There were protests and editorials; a big fight with the union. But the superintendent did not back down. He said the schools needed new blood. So, with money from the Benwood Foundation, district officials set out to attract new talent to the schools. They offered bonuses, mortgage deals and free graduate-school tuition. They got national press for their dramatic efforts. But as it turns out, when the principals were presented with the opportunity to pick which teachers to keep, and which ones to get rid of, they had a hard time. This is Susan Swanson, who works for the school district.

Susan Swanson: There were relationships. You know, the person was a sorority sister, or church member, or something like that.

And there was not a very good evaluation system. It was actually against the law to use test scores as part of a teacher's evaluation. So principals didn't have much to go on. And in the end, they rehired almost everyone. More than two-thirds of the teachers got their jobs back. So what happened next in Chattanooga was not what the foundations and the school system initially set out to do. Instead of building up a new teaching staff, their task was to take the teachers they already had, and figure out how to make them much, much better. Dan Challener says they began by going back to that first "aha" moment they had when looking at the data.

Challener: There were outstanding teachers in every one of these schools.

If there were great teachers in every school, why not start with them? Find out what makes them great. So they went to see Joe Curtis.

Curtis: Good morning Shanice, good morning Jordan, good morning DeAndre, good morning Ladaquis. DeAndre, get in a good mood. Good morning Paris, good morning Qunesha.

It's just after eight in the morning and Joe Curtis greets each of his fifth grade students by name as they file quietly into class. They're dressed according to code: navy blue polo shirts and khaki pants or skirts.

Curtis: OK, I need you to listen to understand please so I can say this once. Listen to understand. All you need out is a paper and pencil…

There's a warm-up problem on the board. Most students get right down to business. But one girl does nothing -- just stares at the board, then drops her head on the desk. Mr. Curtis notices right away.

Curtis: You need a pencil, honey?

He hands her one; tells her to get going on the warm-up. She starts to write.

Curtis: Two minutes.

With just two minutes left, the students are working furiously, bent over their papers in quiet concentration.

[Timer beeps]

Mr. Curtis' timer goes off. He puts a time limit on everything. After the warm up, it's on to a quick review, then a lesson on adding and subtracting negative numbers.

Curtis: Now, what am I subtracting?
Class: Seven.
Curtis: No, negative seven. So am I going back him up or move him forward?
Class: Move him forward.
Curtis: No!
Class: Back him up!
Curtis: You going to back him up. If the number's negative, you backin' him up! So, let's start all over. Start at zero. Start positive…

Each student has a little plastic bear and a number line. When they add a number they move the bear forward. When they subtract, they move the bear back. It's an activity to help them grasp what it means to subtract a negative number.

Curtis: Has anybody noticed that when you subtract a negative you're not really subtracting?
Class: You're adding.
Curtis: You're adding, you're adding. It's all about opposite. All right. What is eight subtract negative six?
Student: Positive 14.
Curtis: Positive 14.

Most of the students are right with him, nodding their heads. But a few seem confused. So Mr. Curtis slows down the pace a bit, goes through more examples, then wraps the lesson with this message:

Curtis: Boys, girls, I want to say, excellent job. This is a new skill. If you're still feeling a little bit disequilibrium -- do you see the word disequilibrium up there, one of my posters up on the top? What's that mean?
Boy: Like when you like what you're doing or something?
Curtis: If you're feeling disequilibrium…
Boy: You don't understand!
Curtis: Yeah, if you still kind of don't get it, it's OK. It's OK. This is a totally brand new skill. Just let what we did today soak in. And we'll come back to it.

Swanson: It's a normal part of learning to feel off-balance. And sometimes we don't talk about that.

This is Susan Swanson who you met a few minutes ago. I've asked her to come with me to observe Joe Curtis' class. She's the director of education for the Benwood Schools – that's what the schools adopted by the Benwood Foundation have become known as. Swanson's a former teacher and principal. Her job now is to figure out what good teaching is and how to teach that to other teachers. One of the first things she notices about Curtis' class the day we visit is the way he talks to his students about how learning is a process: it's normal to be confused.

Swanson: You know, he explained that to them: "It's OK to feel like you don't understand. We're going to continue working on this, and you will catch on." That's important.

Swanson says in a school culture dominated by standardized testing, some teachers make the mistake of focusing too much on teaching students how to pass tests. But she says in Curtis' class, the goal is to really understand the math. He's excited about learning, and his students are too.

Curtis (in classroom): OK, now watch me model number B for you, OK? Then you gonna do another one for me. Twelve is three-fourths of the set. What's your denominator? Then you need to draw your box and cut it into four parts…

Swanson: He always gives them the impression and they believe that they can do whatever he asks them to do.

Curtis (in classroom): So show me how to do this one though, going through the process. What if you didn't have these answers? What would you do? Show me.
Boy: OK.
Another boy: Mr. Curtis, I needs your appreciation. I mean your help.

The class is working in small groups now. One group is doing equations together at the board. Another is playing math games on the computer. And this group is working with Mr. Curtis at the teacher table.

Curtis: All right. Now, X is negative five. So what's star?

There are four students at the teacher table, each working on a different lesson geared to their level. Mr. Curtis checks in on one student, answers a question from another, then has the whole group do a problem together -- all while monitoring the behavior in the rest of the room, which is mostly good with a few brief exceptions.

Curtis:    Boys, I need you focused please.

It's like a dance, the way he moves his attention around the room. He seems to have eyes on the back of his head.

Curtis: All right. Clap once if you hear my voice. [One clap] Clap twice if you hear my voice. [Two claps].

The best teachers make it look so easy, says Susan Swanson. But in fact teaching is one of the most complex jobs there is. At any one time, there are dozens of things going on; decisions to make, demands to respond to. She says keeping a class on track is an art.

Swanson: One of the things I noticed was the pacing in the classroom. With young teachers and with teachers who aren't very effective, they tend either to not give enough time to things or to what I call stretch things out to fill time.

And Swanson says pacing is essential.

Swanson: If you're taking too long with something, you lose kids. If it's too short, they get discouraged because they haven't had enough time to think about it or to do. His classrooms are very well paced.

Curtis (in classroom): Shanice, show her the process, cause she's only been here a couple of weeks -- the process of finding that common denominator, OK? Thank you…

Something else Joe Curtis is good at is encouraging students to teach each other; to share their expertise. And he lets them talk, says Swanson.

Swanson: In a lot of classrooms, teachers do too much talking and kids don't get a chance to talk at all, or very little.

Sharice (in classroom): Go to zero, nice and positive, then go up two.

Swanson: So that's one of his strengths, is relying and believing that they can talk and explain things rather than "I'm the teacher, you're the students, I'm talking, you be quiet. You don't have any ideas." It's very free flowing in there.

Curtis: Paris, go to the next one, I'm right there. That's one. Draw your column. That's 19…

Swanson says she's been in too many classrooms that are nothing like Joe Curtis'. The teacher stands up, lectures, maybe gets a little question and answer going, but is basically oblivious to what the students are thinking; what they need. What Swanson's learned about effective teachers is they are constantly monitoring what is happening with their students: Who gets it? Who doesn't? Who needs help? Who needs a challenge? And they deliver on that – immediately. Something else Swanson says is absolutely essential: teachers need to really know the material they're teaching.

Swanson: He has the content knowledge in math, so he understands the math that he's teaching.

Sounds kind of obvious, that a math teacher should know the math. In fact, though, researchers say many teachers do not know their content well enough. And it's not just about knowing math – it's about knowing how to teach math. Researchers say there's a difference. Being able to teach a subject well has to do with understanding how other people learn – what mistakes they'll make, the questions they'll ask, which concepts will trip them up. Ask Joe Curtis how he learned to do this and he says:

Curtis: Hard work.

Even now, after more than 25 years in the classroom, Curtis says he still spends nights and weekends revising lessons, reading about teaching, trying new things. But in addition to all the hard work, Curtis says the key for him was finding a mentor early on.

Curtis: She was a special ed. teacher. And her name was Agnes Stone.

He says she was a genius teacher, and it's a miracle he found her because there was no formal support system for new teachers.

Curtis: When I started, I had 35 kids in a room, and didn't know some days whether I was coming or going. Had no support. Maybe once a month a supervisor would come by and check on me.

This is what it's like for a lot of teachers, even today. They get hired, and they're pretty much on their own. But not at the Benwood Schools in Chattanooga. In every school now there are two lead teachers – masters like Curtis whose job is to teach other teachers what they know.

Curtis (in classroom): OK, well this is the lesson that we're doing today Ms. Long. It's 9.3, using a calculator to convert fractions to decimals…

Joe Curtis is the lead teacher at his school. He spends the morning teaching his own class. School officials decided this would give lead teachers more credibility as mentors -- if they spent part of their day teaching. Then in the afternoon, Mr. Curtis visits his colleagues – observes them in their classrooms, gives them feedback. Today he's helping a new teacher plan a lesson that they're going to teach together.

Curtis: And what I did was, um, I went through and picked out the math that we're going to teach so just, just take a look real quick and see if you have anything.

Heather Long: OK.

Teacher Heather Long leans in to see what Mr. Curtis has written. This is Long's first year as a teacher. She says she can't imagine what it would have been like without Mr. Curtis.

Long: Every time he gets up, I'm like, "Oh that's a great way to approach that." You know, you just don't think of it because this is my first time ever teaching math. Even when I was in the student-teaching placements, there wasn't a whole lot of math.

And it's not just new teachers at the Benwood schools who are benefiting from lots of mentoring and support. All the teachers are getting it. What the Benwood Foundation has helped build here is a complete system of professional development, for every teacher, built into their work on a daily basis. This is very different from the way most school systems set up professional development. Typically, teachers go to a workshop on a day off, or take a quick class over the summer. They don't get this kind of sustained, long-term training and support. And that's what the Benwood Foundation believes will make a difference here.

Teacher 1: Do you have the notes from my…?
Teacher 2: I do.
Teacher 1: 'Cause I didn't bring…

At Brown Academy, one of the Benwood Schools in downtown Chattanooga, three teachers are meeting to talk about their teaching. These are veterans – they have more than 50 years of experience among them. But they're still learning. Today the teachers are trying something called a Lesson Study. It's a teacher-improvement technique that started in Japan.

Julie Wann: OK the way this works is we are going to state things that we observed in a non-judgmental way, and just, observations…

This is Julie Wann. A few weeks ago she taught an English lesson to her class, and her colleagues came to watch. Today another teacher gave the same lesson a try with her own students. Now they're talking about the differences between how the lessons went with each group of kids.

Sam: There was not nearly as much student dialogue. Um, I don't know if this group was just so much in agreement but I know with your class, Julie, there was a lot more dialogue about why and I think maybe it was they were disagreeing.
Wann: Before when we had the pre-brief of the lesson…

The teachers go back and forth with observations about how the lesson went. What I notice is they're not talking about what the teacher did in the lesson; they're talking about how the students responded. And that's the point, says teacher Gail Huffstutler.

Gail Huffstutler: With the Japanese model, they want to find out how children learn best so that they can develop lessons that will help children to be able to master concepts quickly and to be able to grasp them effectively. And so they put the focus on the child rather than on the educator.

The idea is to think about teaching not as a set of things that a teacher does, but as a series of responses a teacher elicits from students. It's a kind of "turning the camera around," to look at how students are reacting rather than at what teachers are doing.

Daly: This is a response business. It is about the response you get from children.

Tim Daly – who you heard in the first part of the program -- is president of the New Teacher Project. He says in the conversation about teacher quality today, there's a lot of focus on trying to figure out what good teachers do, then requiring other teachers to do the same thing. But he says there are many ways to be a good teacher; the point is, do the students learn? Daly says one way to think about good teaching is to think about the question: what makes a good comedian?

Daly: Is it a person that tells jokes in a certain way? Is it somebody that is very racy and uses a lot of profanity? Is it somebody that talks about everyday things or tells long stories? The truth is that we can think of people that are very good comedians who do it every different manner of way. The universal is that people laugh.

This is what the people involved with the Benwood Initiative have learned. Instead of coming up with a checklist of things that teachers should do, they want teachers to focus on whether their students are learning. If not, go watch a colleague whose students are learning, get advice from a lead teacher, meet in teams to come up with better lessons. It's all about teamwork now – and that's a big change from the way things used to be.

Linda Land: Nobody ever worked together, and you certainly didn't share your things with anybody, I mean it was…
Penny King: What's mine is mine.
Linda Land: That's right, you know.

Penny King and Linda Land are first-grade teachers at Woodmore Elementary, one of the Benwood Schools. They've been teaching here for 26 years.

King: Don't you think it was like a secret society? That you just did your own thing and you didn't want anybody to find out what you were doing or how you were doing it, and if your kids were successful that was good but you weren't going to tell them. 'Cause you didn't want them to know how your kids were so good because it was a competition.

But in fact, most of the kids at Woodmore were not doing so well before the Benwood Initiative. And the teachers knew it. Here's Linda Land.

Land: I felt like I was failing the children. You know I was not doing what I needed to do for them.

Land says getting fired when the Benwood Initiative began was traumatic and awful. But when she was offered her job back and asked if she was willing to put in the work to turn the school around, she said absolutely yes. So did her colleague Penny King.

King: I'm not going to say that I was a bad teacher to start with but I do think it improved us as to the quality of what we were doing. It made us think more about the way we went about things and what we needed to do to make sure that all children were successful.

Land: But you had to be real flexible and be willing to change. Because this brought about a large change for us here. It wouldn't work.

Land and King say the biggest thing for teachers was learning to let go of their egos. And making a commitment to work together as a team. This is their colleague Sherry Washington.

Sherry Washington: Everybody still has their own teaching style now.
King: True.
Washington: We plan to do the same things, but you know you bring your own creativity to into it.
King: Put your own personality on it.
Washington: Exactly.

They all say they're grateful for how the Benwood Initiative has helped them develop as teachers. Linda Land.

Land: Of all of my years of teaching, these last eight to ten years I probably have done a better job than I've ever done before. Only because of the way we now do things.

And indeed, teachers in the Benwood Schools are doing a better job now according to an analysis by Education Sector, an independent think tank in Washington, D.C. Researchers at Education Sector looked at how much teachers in the Benwood Schools were raising their student test scores. What they found is that before the Benwood Initiative began, teachers in the Benwood schools were far less effective at raising student test scores than teachers at other schools in the district. But six years after the Benwood Initiative began, the Benwood teachers were more effective than other teachers in the district. And this was mostly the same teachers. Two-thirds of the teachers who were fired got their jobs back. The Education Sector report concludes that what happened in the Benwood schools shows that teacher effectiveness is not a "fixed" trait. Teachers can – and did – get better.

Challener: Some years there were big jumps and some years they were little jumps but it was just a steady upward climb.

This is Dan Challener of the Public Education Foundation talking about the overall test score growth in the Benwood Schools. Before the Benwood Initiative began, only about half the students were passing state tests in reading and language arts. Five years later, more than 80 percent were. There were big gains in math, too. For Challener and others who have been working in the Benwood Schools, the clear lesson is that just firing teachers is not the way to go.

Challener: Yes, there were some teachers there who weren't doing nearly what they needed to do. But the issue was raising the skill level and the effectiveness of the large group of teachers we had.

Challener believes the majority of teachers in America today are satisfactory or good and the key is to make them better. He believes it can be done. His colleague Susan Swanson does, too. But she's quick to point out that removing a third of the teachers from the Benwood Schools was a big reason the project succeeded.

Swanson: There are some people who should not be teachers. There are some people who should not be doctors. There are some people who should not be insurance sales people. And they've gotten into the wrong field.

But how can you tell who will be a good teacher; who has the potential to get better? Research shows most teachers are not particularly effective in their first year. You have to give them time to learn. But at what point do you pull the plug? And how do you know if it's the teacher's problem, or if they are just not getting the right help and training? These are the trickiest questions, and Swanson doesn't have definitive answers. But one thing she knows for sure is that not every teacher can be like Joe Curtis.

Swanson: Not everybody's going to be a superstar.

Swanson says it takes lots of skills to be an effective teacher. You need to know how to manage a class; plan lessons; ask good questions; give clear directions. She thinks most of these skills can be taught. But there is a way that truly great teachers put it all together -- a certain something that defies definition. It's like the difference between a back-up player in the NBA …

Swanson: …and the person who can put it all together in a game, in a game situation. That's harder to teach.

Swanson believes it's possible to take "pretty good" teachers and make them better. But truly great teachers like Joe Curtis? She thinks they are born and not made. And she says we shouldn't expect every teacher to be like Joe Curtis, just like we shouldn't expect every basketball player to be like Michael Jordan or LeBron James. But we should expect all teachers to be good, Swanson says, and they can be better, if the nation is willing to invest in the right training and support.

[Music: Acid Raindrops (Instrumental) – People Under the Stairs – Acid Raindrops – OM Records]

Stephen Smith: The Benwood Initiative provides evidence that teachers can improve. But can the Benwood Initiative be replicated elsewhere? It's not as simple as just copying what they did in Tennessee. In Chattanooga there was private money. Not every school system will attract a foundation willing to invest millions of dollars. And even though students in the Benwood Schools are doing better than they were, they're still not keeping up with students in higher-income schools. Poor children will probably always struggle to keep up, even if they get the best teachers. Poverty itself is an impediment to doing well – in school, and in life. Teachers alone can't change that. That said, it's also clear that teachers have a big role to play. The research shows that kids do better in school if they get good teachers, and if they avoid bad ones. America will need to find more innovative ways to improve teachers, and to weed out bad teaching, if it hopes to make a difference in the lives of poor children.

[Music: American RadioWorks theme music]

You've been listening to an American RadioWorks documentary, "Testing Teachers." It was produced by Emily Hanford and edited by Catherine Winter. The American RadioWorks team includes Ellen Guettler, Craig Thorson, Ochen Kaylan and Judy McAlpine. I'm Stephen Smith.

Special thanks to Frankie Barnhill, Elisabeth Harrison at WRNI in Rhode Island and Kavitha Cardozza at WAMU in Washington. I'm Stephen Smith.

We have more about what makes great teaching, and how teachers learn to be great, at our website, Americanradioworks.org. While you're there, check out our other documentaries about education, including programs about the importance of preschool, the impact of No Child Left Behind, and the legacy of school de-segregation. That's at Americanradioworks.org.

Support for this program comes from the Spencer Foundation. American RadioWorks is supported by the Batten Institute, the research center for global entrepreneurship and innovation at the University of Virginia's Darden School of Business. Batteninstitute.org.

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