Thursday, July 15, 2010

Model of Education?

Posted By on Thu, Jul 15, 2010 at 9:17 AM

For all the crap that Memphis City Schools takes — and I'm not saying they don't deserve at least part of the reputation they have — recent events have transformed them into a model of national education reform.

I know what you're thinking: MCS a model? Please, they have a graduation rate of 62 percent. That's hardly a model of education.

But with funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, as well as the federal Race to the Top challenge, Memphis' educational system is on the cusp.

Seriously. I wrote about it this week for our paper edition.

[And if you don't believe me, you can read this story from The Washington Post: Gates Foundation playing pivotal role in changes for education system.]

Education reform has taken many forms in the last few decades. Optional schools, charter schools, smaller schools. All of these things have worked ... marginally. Smaller schools, for instance, have helped reduce school violence, but didn't do all that much for student achievement.

The new national thinking — and the research behind it — puts a renewed emphasis on the teacher.

MCS superintendent Kriner Cash
  • Justin Fox Burks
  • MCS superintendent Kriner Cash
"I want an effective teacher in every classroom in every subject every day," says Memphis City Schools superintendent Kriner Cash. "I want an effective principal at the helm of every school."

At MCS, they're rethinking teacher evaluations, teacher pay, teacher tenure, and teacher hiring.

Just from the comments I've already heard, I think the initiative is somewhat controversial.

Any time you have that much money going one place (especially an organization that has had its share of corruption) it's going to be controversial.

But I guess I think about the district's TEI proposal in two ways:

One: What is so controversial about hiring teachers earlier? Or paying them more? Or wanting the best teachers to teach the community's students? What's controversial about mandating annual evaluations?

I get that teachers don't want their evaluations tied to their students' test scores, but doesn't that presuppose that student achievement data won't be positive?

I know, a lot of kids in MCS come from single-family homes, they're poor, they don't have early childhood education or access to transportation ... but what's wrong with thinking that failure shouldn't be an option, even in schools with a high concentration of poverty?

(As part of the TEI, the school system is also trying to instill the value of education in its students with the Efficacy Institute's student envoy program.)

Under the state's First to the Top act, 50 percent of a teacher's annual evaluation will be assessed by student achievement.

Thirty-five percent of that is how much the student has progressed over the past year. Not if they're proficient yet or up to grade level, but simply how much they've learned that year, from that teacher.

Two: Yes, there are other ways the district could use that money. For instance, on teacher aides.

Only, they can't. Neither funding source can be used for day-to-day operations.

Both the Gates and the Race to the Top money is earmarked for education reform, and Memphis has a plan for it. I'd rather see the city schools compete for the money and win rather than not compete and do the same thing with the same dwindling resources.

(If we can take federal money to build highways we don't need, we should be able to take federal money and see if it can help improve our students' education. Oops! Soapbox.)

When I was talking to MCS commissioner Tomeka Hart, she told me that she sees each year as a new 13-year plan.

"The purpose of these funds is to go above and beyond what you're already doing," she says.

Even if this fails miserably — and I don't think they're doing anything that's going to hurt student achievement — I'm okay with $160 million being pumped into this community.

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