Hamilton County: Where Rewarding Teachers for Success in Raising Student Achievement Has Been Used to Strengthen a Successful Reform Effort in Nine High-Poverty Elementary Schools
Remarks of Jack Murrah, President, Lyndhurst Foundation


Hamilton County Department of Education provides a cash incentive to high performing teachers in high poverty schools. The program began with external funding and as a special initiative in nine elementary schools. It now operates with Title 1 funds in all eligible elementary and middle schools in the district.

The cash incentive project was one of several initiatives created by a variety of community partners to support a reform effort that was already underway. These initiatives were designed to help recruit and retain a strong faculty in each of the nine inner-city schools. The initiatives appear to have been far more effective with retention than with recruitment.

The reform effort was sharply focused on raising student achievement, especially in reading. Most of the strategies were aimed at increasing the quality of instruction and curriculum. The results are impressive, with large increases in the percentage of students performing at a proficient level on state achievement tests.


Hamilton County is an urban/suburban county of 300,000 people located in southeast Tennessee. Half the population lives in the city of Chattanooga. Median household income is 90-95% of the national average. Minority population is about 25%. The school system has about 40,000 students. 50% qualify for free or reduced price lunch. 40% are minority.

The county school system used to serve only those students who lived outside Chattanooga, which had its own school system. In 1996 the voters of the city approved a referendum to discontinue its separate school system, so, by state law, those schools were absorbed by the county school district. County residents were decidedly against the "merger," but had no vote in the matter.

A new school superintendent was hired to oversee the unified district, and he has remained in office nine years. He steps down this summer. The first half of his tenure was focused on making the merger work. The second half was focused on reform aimed at raising standards and achievement, and eliminating the "double standard" that accepted low performance in schools that served disadvantaged students. The last four years have been politically much more contentious. The superintendent enjoyed almost unanimous support from the elected school board, but vociferous opposition from a slim suburban majority of the elected county commissioners.

History of the "Benwood Schools" initiative:

Six years ago, the local Benwood Foundation conducted a series of discussions with local education leaders about the major issues facing the community. In the course of those conversations, a report appeared that placed nine public elementary schools in Hamilton County among the 25 lowest performing schools in the state. This information proved to be the galvanizing force for and shaping influence on Benwood's mission with respect to education. The foundation committed $5 million over a five-year period to make dramatic increases in student achievement in these nine schools. Benwood asked the local Public Education Foundation to receive and oversee the use of the grant. PEF pledged to provide an additional $2.5 million to the effort.

The school district was initially defensive and suspicious, but gradually warmed to the boldness of the proposal. The Benwood initiative was probably the strongest single influence on the superintendent's transition from manager of a merger to champion of reform. In the first three years of the initiative, he gradually installed strong leadership teams in each of the schools and reconstituted their faculties--i.e., he vacated all positions and enabled the principals to hire teachers as though these were new schools. He asked each of the principals elsewhere in the district to absorb one or two of the teachers who were not rehired in the Benwood schools, and to "fix them or fire them." Most are no longer teaching in the district. He secured the full support of the local teachers' association for these actions.

Much of the Benwood grant has been used to build the capacity of the faculty to teach reading, with a goal of 100% of third graders reading at grade level or higher. Curricular changes and professional development, more intensive use of more ample data, and increased collaboration among the teachers have been highlights of the effort. The district also mandated that Title 1 funds be used for purposes that were demonstrably associated with raising student achievement. (Individual schools had once enjoyed considerable autonomy and little accountability for the use of these funds.) The district further assisted by providing consulting teachers in each school so that professional development would be continuous and embedded in the school.

The actions of the school district and the strategic use of the Benwood funds might be considered the first and second waves of reform in these nine schools. The third wave came from a variety of community partners who together recognized the challenge of maintaining a highly effective teaching staff in these very challenging schools.

The Osborne Foundation agreed to provide a free master's degree in urban education. The Benwood and Lyndhurst Foundations provided forgivable loans for the purchase of homes in the inner city. The Bar Association provided free legal advice. These benefits were made available to any teacher in the nine schools, on the condition that they remain there for five years.

Of these incentives, the Osborne initiative generated the strongest interest. The housing incentive, while generous, involved too big a "life decision," often involving a family, so only about a dozen teachers accepted the offer.

Larger, more controversial, but more galvanizing than any of these incentives was one envisioned by a business council, convened by the city mayor, to provide a cash bonus to Benwood teachers and principals who were high performers, as measured by Tennessee's Value Added Assessment System. This assessment tool measures growth in student achievement from one year to the next, thus serving as a better instrument (than achievement scores) for evaluating individual teacher and school effectiveness.

Tennessee generally regards teachers as exceptionally effective if their students make 15% more than a year's gain in a school year. Benwood teachers whose students made at least that large a gain in reading, language, and math qualified for a $5,000 bonus from City revenues. Principals whose schools made such gains were given a $10,000 bonus, and every teacher in those schools (even those who were not high gainers themselves) received a $1,000 bonus. Recipients of the bonus were expected to remain in the Benwood schools for five years. The teachers' association balked at an incentive pay system based on student performance but relented in the face of a variety of compelling arguments and external pressures.

The mayor provided strong leadership for this initiative, repeatedly using it to celebrate the successes of these teachers and schools, and to proclaim that the highest form of public service in our community was to be a highly effective teacher in a high poverty school.

While not many suburban teachers moved to one of the Benwood schools in response to these incentives, a considerable number of teachers of high performance or high promise (i.e., they became high performers within a year or two) remained there. Most would say that the cash incentive was great to receive, but it would not have been enough to make them stay without an effective leadership team and a sense of momentum in the schools.

The net effect of the reform effort has been a steep rise in student achievement in the Benwood schools, which are now scoring in the top 10% of the state's elementary schools in value-added assessment. Hamilton County has experienced success in raising achievement throughout the district and narrowing the achievement gap between disadvantaged and advantaged students. Inner-city schools that had once been regarded as failures are now a success story. Lessons learned in these schools are now driving policy decisions for the entire school district--though with some dissent.

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Last Modified: 05/09/2006