What Makes them Great: Best Practices at Reward Schools

By Nate Schwartz

Each year, Tennessee recognizes 10 percent of its schools for overall excellence. The schools are those that have made the greatest gains from the previous year and the schools that achieve at the highest levels of absolute performance across the state. In the 2013 report, Learning from the Best: Promising Practices from Tennessee’s 2013 Reward Schools, we shine a light on these schools, sharing some of their stories and practices as a source of inspiration and learning.

The report – based on interviews with principals and data on teacher evaluation results, student test scores, and school demographics – sets out to identify some of the qualities that make Tennessee Reward Schools special. We share themes and best practices across four common elements of effective schools: leadership, instruction, human capital, and school climate.

In Reward Schools, school leaders hold all stakeholders to high standards. They set a clear vision, creating programs and policies that reinforce core values. They value teacher input and they proactively protect instructional time.

In Reward Schools, instruction is central and data-driven. Formative assessments are used to identify student needs, innovative scheduling allows for individualized student support, and teachers implement practices emphasized by the Common Core State Standards, such as questioning, feedback, and problem-solving.

In Reward Schools, teachers and leaders drive success. Teacher hiring and evaluation is motivated by a unified school vision, school leaders offer teachers ongoing support and feedback, and the school is committed to high quality professional development and mentoring.

In Reward Schools, the school climate promotes a culture of learning for all students. Rules are clear, transparent, and applied consistently. Teachers and staff work to develop caring professional relationships with students, creating an atmosphere of trust that supports strong student investment. And teachers consistently look for new ways to connect with students around classroom content.

What does this look like in practice?

At Pin Oak Elementary School in the Henderson County School District, the principal has defined a strategy where teacher leaders play a crucial role in selecting instructional resources and weighing the value of various instructional policies and programs that the school might adopt.

At Harrison Elementary School in the Hamilton County School District, teachers use questioning strategies that prompt students to justify their own thinking. Teachers consistently model questioning strategies and use them in their own interactions with students. Over time, students use the strategies in interactions with their peers and come to class prepared to justify answers and explain their reasoning.

At Coffee County Central High School in the Coffee County School District, teachers meet weekly in professional learning communities to reflect on patterns in student data and to determine what teaching practices and interventions have been effective.

At Lowrance Elementary School in the Memphis-Shelby School District, teachers and administrators highlight students, teachers, and grade levels that show learning growth even in small increments, creating a mindset that accentuates the positive and builds a community mindset where staff members take responsibility for all students in the school.

You’ll find more examples like these as well as more information about all of our state’s Reward Schools in the report.