As a general rule, governments and public agencies do relatively poor jobs of communicating.

Unfortunately, that’s especially true for Memphis City Schools, and it’s regrettable, because if there’s any public entity who needs to be good at communicating effectively with the public, it should be the one that on average spends about $95,000 an hour, 24/365.

This is on our minds today, because as we lamented yesterday, the city district often finds itself on the losing side in the battle for positive public perceptions when conflict arises with Shelby County Schools.

It’s a shame, because winning the hearts and minds of county taxpayers should be a priority for the city district. And most frustrating of all, there is some good news that deserves to be heard.

The Mantra

Superintendent Carol Johnson’s mantra is Every Day, Every Child, College Bound, and although she gets some pushback from some who think vocational education deserves equal billing, she’s right on target. The skills and knowledge needed to enter college are the same ones that are needed whatever decision students make about their future.

There’s no question that the most powerful weapon that Memphis City Schools has is its superintendent, but so far, she’s been unable to translate her popularity into improved public opinions about city schools. As a result, the prevailing public opinion is largely this: nothing has changed, and worse, there’s really nothing that can be done to improve things.

The opinions are buttressed by the culture of the district, resistance by some administrators and principals to support her ideas, and a lack of confidence that her programs will bear fruit. Regardless of these, Memphis City Schools itself is guilty of failing to be as assertive as it needs to be to send the message to the public that things are changing.

No area of government generates more reports, more statistics, and more measurements than public education, and that’s certainly true for an urban district like Memphis City Schools.

Some Good News For A Change

Here’s just a couple of hopeful statistics that we think should be shared with the public to combat the persistent feeling of helplessness:

· Memphis City Schools does better than the other three metro districts in Tennessee in educating African-American students.

· Memphis City Schools has cut the dropout rate 23 percent in two years.

At a time when Dr. Johnson is hammering home her message, some supporting documentation would go a long way toward influencing the opinion of the public who foots the bills for schools. Actually, in our minds, there would be value in mounting what would be tantamount to a political campaign, because in truth, Memphis City Schools is fighting for the public’s vote of confidence. And, if Memphis is to reduce the number of people leaving the city, there’s nothing that would be more persuasive than convincing the public that schools are improving.

TCAP Averages

For example, in our reading of the TCAP results, Memphis City Schools’ two-year average of African-American students who are proficient and advanced is higher than the average of Knox, Nashville/Davidson, and Hamilton Counties. Specifically, the Memphis district leads the state in reading for K-8 and 9-12 – 81% and 86% respectively. Meanwhile, the cumulative average of the other three metro areas was 77.7% and 82.3%, and even taken separately, none of the other districts surpassed Memphis. That’s an impressive statistic to us, particularly in light of the fact that the other metro areas have consolidated school systems, so their scores include suburban African-Americans who generally score higher than their urban counterparts.

In math, the average for Memphis City Schools was only marginally better than the average of the three other metros, but it was still better. When the districts were taken separately, Knox County bested Memphis in 9-12 math.

As for the dropout rate, the Tennessee Department of Education Report Card reports that the Memphis City Schools’ cohort dropout rate has declined from 19.8 percent in 2004 to 15 percent this year. When the public costs for students who drop out of school – seen in incarceration, social services, workforce training and more – weighs down budgets of the public sector, there’s nothing more important that Memphis City Schools can do than get more students to their graduation exercises. After all, if every child is to be college bound, first, we have to get them to graduation.

It’s not our intent to be Pollyannish about the challenges facing Memphis City Schools and its students, but it is our intent to argue that the district needs to be more forceful and strategic in painting a more accurate portrait of the learning that’s taking place here today. And it begins by coming to grips with the political context in which all of this plays out.