Educational experts disagree about the wisdom of creating schools for overage students, the strategy that’s a centerpiece of Memphis City Schools Superintendent Kriner Cash’s strategies to turn around the low-performing district.

There is no disagreement, however, on the wisdom of the move as a strategy for gaming No Child Left Behind.

It seems only logical that if some of the over age students who are dragging down a number of schools’ proficiency scores are concentrated into fewer schools, Memphis City Schools has a better chance to improve results under NCLB.

Facts Of Life

The same end game motivated Supt. Cash’s plan to recruit 2,000-3,000 college students who will act as tutors for 10 weeks for 9,000 elementary students who are performing one grade level behind. It will be just in time for state testing under NCLB.

Like it or not, NCLB is a fact of life in today’s public education. It’s not enough any more for a superintendent to manage teaching and learning. It’s equally important to manage, if not manipulate, NCLB so it shows improvement in the district and schools.

We haven’t always known that. Under former Supt. Carol Johnson, we were spoon-fed news releases from the district and the Tennessee Department of Education about the substantial progress that was being made by Memphis City Schools in getting schools off the state’s high-priority list.

Harboring The Truth

What we weren’t told in the midst of these celebrations was that more than 60 city schools were placed in “safe harbor” status, meaning that this sleight of hand misled parents and taxpayers into believing that students must be getting a good education if they were attending a school meeting AYP (Adequate Yearly Progress).

Safe harbor allowed Memphis City Schools to proclaim in its press release that “128 Schools (in good standing)… Most in NCLB History!” Meanwhile, then-superintendent Johnson said: “It is inspiring news for the Memphis community and all in our district to know we are closer to realizing one of our most important goals – for every school to be in Good Standing.”

The fact that a sizable number of the schools were listed in good standing on a technicality went unmentioned.

The Road Less Traveled

As we’ve mentioned before, as a result of these kinds of announcements and revelations made in the wake of Ms. Johnson’s departure, the new superintendent confronts a much more jaded, if not cynical, Memphis public.

So far, Supt. Cash has not fallen into some of the same traps that eventually crippled Supt. Johnson’s effectiveness – the way the so-called Minneapolis Mafia isolated her, filtered information and blocked input, and the way that her staff established an alternate organizational chart rather than tackle the toughest task of all…changing the culture of the district.

Already, Mr. Cash has taken steps that indicate a different path. While he has brought in some Miami transplants in key positions – a couple of Millennium Group associates, including Irving Hamer (giving birth to the Millennium Mafia appellation), he also moved former academic director Alfred Hall of Memphis to chief of staff.

First, I Had To Get Its Attention

Also, he seems dead serious about transforming the district culture, based in particular on Mr. Hamer’s “take no prisoners” approach, which has been likened to the old joke about hitting the mule with a 2 X 4 to get its attention. If anything, it does appear that the Cash regime has gotten everyone’s attention. Now the test is to see if it can fundamentally change things, a task that has stumped a succession of superintendents.

Supt. Cash gives appearances of finding his rhythm, although the toughest sell of all is the private sector, which remains unconvinced that anyone can succeed in achieving significant progress at the district.

And yet, the new superintendent can’t be faulted for clearly stating what we should expect from him by next year and how we should hold him accountable. He pledged to cut the number of low-achieving schools in half, increase TCAP scores for African-American and Hispanic students by 6 percentage points, and increase the district’s ACT scores from 17.5 to 19. Meanwhile, he plans to open school-based “full-service parent centers” and “full-service health clinics” in each region of the district.

Imaginative Times

These last two ideas seem anchored in the idea of schools serving as centers of neighborhood, and there’s no question that this is a valuable objective. But, to accomplish this will require serious cooperation from the public sector, which is beset with its own financial pressures. In fact, Supt. Cash’s concepts are progenitors of earlier, similar initiatives that became victims to the budget axes of city and county governments.

The national context in which Supt. Cash’s work is cast is nothing short of unimaginable just a few years ago.

Chicago Public Schools chief Arne Duncan is looking to pilot boarding schools for students in September, 2009. Other cities are looking at restructuring their districts into mayor-led ones as New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg extolled the virtues of mayoral control as school began in his city. A handful of cities are experimenting with ways to hire teachers from the top third of college graduates rather than the bottom third.

The Cash Context

Meanwhile, here, Supt. Cash has a grab bag of programs aimed at elevating expectations and improving performance at Memphis City School. And if there are guiding principles for his ideas, it’s probably these:

• Designing innovative platforms to replace existing practice is the key to radical change within one year.

• Turnaround strategies must center on teaching and learning.

• Structural changes are at the heart of urban school transformation.

• Redeployed resources are critical to sustaining turnaround after the first year of change.

• Collaborations between the community and the district are vital to eliminating low performance.

• School turnaround requires responses to all of the conditions that contribute to underachieving students.

• Increasing the application of technology can reduce the time that teachers lose with paperwork and reports.

• Stepping up the rate of achievement requires greater involvement of parents, families and communities.

These principles essentially represent the approach that proved effective in Miami. There’s no reason to expect that they aren’t the context for the Cash era and will produce similar results in Memphis.