kids in class

It’s the worst kept secret at Memphis City Schools that almost every one of its schools is expected to hit the state’s failing schools list later this year.

That’s because Tennessee Department of Education is finally getting serious about academic standards and no longer will parents and taxpayers be lied to by their own governments about the performance of our schools.  For way too many years, state officials have told us – knowing that it wasn’t true – that a vast majority of our students were achieving at a high level.

Even with the weak standards, Memphis City Schools has regularly placed a number of schools on the list.  Unfortunately, when the Department of Education had the opportunity to do something dramatic to help us about five years ago when some of our schools were eligible for state take-over, it once again showed the state’s predilection to pretend that we’re not in Tennessee.

All of that determined lack of serious action became even more curious years later when Department of Education moved heaven and earth to get involved in Nashville schools and to prove that it meant business when it said that those schools had to get better.  If in fact, as we wrote recently, Governor Bredesen has a separate but equal attitude toward University of Memphis and University Tennessee, perhaps he learned it from the Department of Education’s separate but equal attitude toward Memphis City Schools and Nashville metro schools.

More the Merrier

We urged the state to show more leadership and to take responsibility for schools back then, and as a result, we don’t feel all territorial and put upon by suggestions from Nashville that the state may take over eight Memphis schools.  Clearly, there was push-back in many places – the district, the media and politicians.

Truth be told, however, we favor as many experiments in school improvement as possible in Memphis City Schools, so if we were school officials, we’d put out the welcome mat and tell state officials to come on down.  Clearly, what we’ve been doing hasn’t worked, even as more and more money has been spent in the city district while enrollment declined.

Except for economic development, no area of public policy is more enamored with magic answers than public education.  Looking back at superintendents of Memphis City Schools back to the days of Willie W. Herenton, we’ve had so many school reform flavors of the month that we can’t remember them all, except that none of them really had much impact.

We are excited by the Gates’ Foundation Teacher Effectiveness Initiative and by many of Superintendent Kriner Cash’s plans and programs for the future, but our hopefulness is grounded in the reality that improving student performance will not be easy and that we need to commit to it for the long haul.  It’s also grounded in the reality that improving schools is only part of our challenge; we need also to improve social services, health care, early childhood intervention and neighborhood revitalization.

No Magic Bullets

In the past four years, we’ve probably written about any part of government as much as we have about public schools.  We’ve questioned funding that increases despite drops in enrollment, planning functions that over the years have been geared to obfuscate the facts, communications efforts that limp along (even when there is good news to tell), and a culture that strangles new ideas in their beds and breeds alarming low expectations for our students.

Anyway, suffice it to say that if the State of Tennessee finally wants to get serious about helping Memphis City Schools, someone should send them the directions and invite them to bring their philosophy, their money and their energy and see what they can get done.

As we strike out in a new direction fueled by Gates money, we need to remember that failure persists in urban schools “in part because we continue to think about the problem in overly simplistic terms, and we continue to look for magic bullets to think we can solve the problem of merit pay for teachers or the problem of school governance or the problem of the quality of the workforce,” Charles Payne said on Smart City.

“All of these matter in one way or another, and they’re all tied together with a bundle of other problems including a whole series of social and political problems we tend not to recognize at all.  We have to learn to appreciate more deeply the twistedness and the complexity of the problem.”

More Than 1 Thing

Dr. Payne is professor at University of Chicago and author of numerous books, including the So Much Reform, So Little Change. “In order to make deep and lasting change in schools, you’ve got to be moving on multiple fronts simultaneously.  If you’re moving on three or four fronts simultaneously, then you have a chance.”

Urban districts are often like depressed people, he said, because they function well below capacity and even simple things become difficult without support.  He also said that “best practices are often overused as the answer to what ails schools, because it “too often leaves out the context…you take a program itself out of that supportive context and simply transfer the program to another context…too often we wind up with nothing or at best we wind up with results that pale in comparison to what the program did in a supportive context.”

“I’m not sure that I can say that we know how in a reliable way to reproduce high-quality leadership,” he said.  “But we know that’s the engine.  We also know that changing school culture requires both a carrot and a stick.  We know that some of the most effective teachers in the inner city are teacher who are distinctively demanding and distinctively supportive of their students.  That’s a good, broad description of some of the most successful leaders as well.  They are demanding.  They will break people’s heads.  They are hurtful.  They will literally have to fire folks.  It’s arguable that the most successful of the big city systems right now is Atlanta under Beverly Hall, and she’s probably fired 90% of the principals who were in the city when she took office.

“You have to have that toughness, but at the same time, it can’t just be beating on people.  You have to make people understand that you can help them grow professionally, and that when things get tough, you’re going to be there.   I think when we find that combination of leadership at the district or school level, at least you have a chance to see culture change.”

Universities Have to Do Better

Dr. Payne also extends a challenge to universities producing teachers for urban districts.  “Universities know just about as much about this as they do about making rain in Peru,” he said.  “Universities have been shamefully disconnected from the realities of urban schools.  And the notion that we can rely on them and them alone to train a convoy of leaders to do something that faculty don’t know how to do by and large, it’s going to take much more than that.”

Summarizing it to its essence, he said that the first thing to do is to increase teacher expectations.  “Teachers are placed in a difficult position,” he said.  “They’re systematically under-resources and typically don’t have the leadership they need.  In that capacity, teachers often develop a blaming culture.  They blame the parents.  They blame the children.  Both urban parents and urban children represent issues.  The culture becomes a culture in which everybody expects the least of everyone else.  Parents have low expectations of teachers.  Teachers have low expectations of students and parents, and it becomes a self-reinforcing cycle.”

And before we expect overnight miracles, Atlanta Superintendent Beverly Hall said on Smart City that “it takes at least three to four years to begin to have the infrastructure in place to begin to see the kind of progress that we’ve been seeing in Atlanta.

Check List for Superintendents

Her advice to urban superintendents:

* Build a team

* Convince people you’re not leaving (since average tenure for urban superintendents is 3-4 years

* Establish rapport and working relationships with the board of education and the community

* Jump start the instructional program, the core business

As for her job performance, she said her salary is linked to the percentage of kids who move from the bottom core to the middle and from the middle to the top in math and reading, it is linked to percentage of students on advanced courses and it is linked to improvements in student attendance.