I had the unusual experience of spending my freshman year in high school in one of the bottom 100 schools in the country, followed by spending the next three years at one of the top public 50 schools in the country (both in Augusta-Richmond GA.) As a student I didn't change. The teachers between the two schools weren't really THAT different, although the expectations at the "good" school were higher and I think the teachers were just grateful that we were well-behaved. Classroom sizes were about the same (20-30 students each) and the academic curriculum was the same (the "good" school had more emphasis on the arts, however, and the "bad" school included vocational classes.)
The difference was all in the students. The students at the "bad" school didn't give a crap. They didn't want to be there any way. They were only wasting time until they inevitably gave up and dropped out. The students at the "good" school wanted to be there - we had to pass tests and pass an audition, and if we ever dropped below a C average we were threatened with being returned to the "bad" schools we had come from.
You cannot fix the schools until you fix the students. You cannot fix the students until you fix their parents. You cannot fix their parents until you fix society. How do you fix a broken society?
When I say the teachers weren't really all that different, I say it with all seriousness. The teachers at the good school and the bad school alike were all there because they liked teaching and were fairly passionate about their respective subjects. How much different was my 9th grade choral teacher from my 10th grade choral teacher? One had the luck of getting a job with a fine arts school, and the other one had the rotten luck of landing at a comprehensive high school. At least in our girl's chorus, we all liked our teacher and enjoyed being in there.
How much different was my 9th grade biology teacher from my 12th grade anatomy and physiology teacher? The former was a bassist in his church on Sundays, and also the baseball coach for the school. Yet he did his best with our unruly, uninterested class of rural rednecks and poor black kids from the suburbs of South Augusta, even to the point of giving them a thorough lesson on evolution whether they wanted it or not ("You may not believe it, I'm not saying you have to believe it, but it's science whether you like it or not, so you better know it inside and out.") I think the 9th grade teacher actually did a more exceptional job - the "bad" school had so little funding that every spare penny had to go for dissection labs, whereas the teacher at the "good" school had been given a grant someplace along the line and our labs also included food and pool noodles. (The pool noodles became striated muscles, which we had to shove together across our desks while the teacher gleefully shouted "Calcium uptake! Calcium released!")
How much different was my 9th grade literature teacher from my 10th grade one? Actually, my 9th grade teacher was better. He was a cool guy, we loved him to bits - (even the less enthused students didn't give him as much of a hard time) and my 10th grade teacher came accross as a bit flakey sometimes. I don't remember anything we read in 10th grade literature, but I still remember every single person in the 9th grade class having to get up and recite Daffodils, stumbling over the middle verses and looking desperately at the rest of the class or the single daffodil that had been placed in the middle of the class, searching for a clue.
And yet, the "bad" school is considered failing, because the graduation rate is so low. The teachers are going to be punished for failing to improve, even though they did their damnedest with my classmates to try to get them interested in the subject matter.
The myth of the failing school is that it's somehow the teacher's fault. I'd say it's the opposite - the teachers are victims of the failing school too. They try so hard to help their students, to be the light in the darkness, but what are the odds of them actually reaching someone? And yet, if you had asked any one of them whether it was worth it, knowing how difficult it was to make a difference, they would have said yes - if they can change one student, then it's still worth it.
So don't punish them for failing to reach the other 29 in their classroom. The other 29 don't want to be reached, and giving the teacher a paycut isn't going to change that.
(I graduated high school in 1998. I attended the "bad" school, Hephzibah High, from 1994-1995, before I was accepted to Davidson Fine Arts, a publically funded magnet school.)
Edit: Thanks for the rec list, everyone (first time!) I'm glad that I generated such a great discussion in the comments.
Also, out of curiosity, I checked on the rankings for the two schools for the 2010-2011 school year (using the website School Digger.) The "bad" school is no longer in the bottom 10 - it's moved up to 346 out of 399, barely scraping its way out of the bottom 50. The "good" school is tied for first place with two other schools, with all students scoring 100 on the English and mathematics portion of the test used to evaluate the rankings.