In September, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan came to Memphis bearing a message of possible federal largesse to come. "We'd love to see the city and state compete vigorously for funding. We're looking for dramatic change, not incremental change," said Duncan, who appeared in tandem with Tennessee senator Lamar Alexander at a sort of summit conference of local and state education leaders. (Duncan may come back this way if an informal invitation tendered in October by then mayoral candidate Jerry Lawler to the secretary is acted upon officially.)
And now in November — appropriately enough, in the week before Thanksgiving — the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has announced a grant of $90 million to Memphis City Schools to support its Teacher Effectiveness Initiative (TEI). And, Secretary Duncan, whether you come back this way or not, with or without federal funds to further augment the MCS effort, we hope you're at least paying heed to what's going on here. Dramatic change? We think so. Educational reform? Sure looks like it.
The TEI program that the Gates Foundation has decided to help underwrite answers one of the fundamental criticisms of modern public education — namely, that it wastes too much time, resources, and rewards on the apparatus of administration rather than on teaching. To give MCS superintendent Kriner Cash his due, he understands that. "We want our master teachers to stay in the classroom," Cash told the Flyer's Mary Cashiola recently. "Traditionally, to make more money, teachers have had to come out of the classroom and into a principalship." In short, the educational hierarchy was so constructed as to entice the cream right out of the crop, turning good hands-on teachers into systemic bureaucrats. The students were the losers in this scheme of things.
TEI aims to fix that problem, offering salaries and other perks designed to keep superior teachers in the classroom. In conjunction with the elevation in status of teaching per se, Cash hopes to evolve a compensation structure that would be determined by measurable teacher performance, instead of years served or degrees earned. That part isn't a new idea. It was at the heart of educational reforms begun — though not completed — by an Arkansas governor named Bill Clinton in the 1980s and by then-governor Alexander in Tennessee during the same years.
Getting from here to there won't be automatic, and it won't come without stout opposition to change from within the system itself. But it needs to happen. We congratulate Cash for acquiring funds to put his plans in to action, and we offer the hope that, some years down the pike, he won't be tempted again to consider disguised forms of social promotion (an early misstep by the superintendent), nor will he have to challenge, as he did this week, the accuracy of state standards which purport to show MCS with an overall failing grade in relation to other school systems in Tennessee.
If TEI goes according to expectations, all that will be seen as merely part of MCS' — and Cash's — upward learning curve.