No one says it better than Memphis City Schools Superintendent Kriner Cash.

“Getting an effective teacher cannot be a lottery ticket for our students,” he said.  “This is simply not acceptable.”

That’s the most exciting part of this Gates Foundation-funded Teacher Effectiveness Initiative.  It is a direct hit on the lottery taking place in schools across the city every year.  It’s also a direct hit on the teacher’s union opposition to putting to good use the Tennessee Value-Added Assessment System (TVAAS) which was created in 1992 to provide data to the public on the performance of districts and schools and to provide information to school administrators that helps them identify weaknesses in even the strongest schools.

Opening the Black Box

TVAAS is unlike any other state-wide accountability program, because it gives our education officials the ability to rank schools not by how students score on standardized tests but on how schools are doing in helping each student improve their academic performance.  And the information arms administrators and board members with the ammunition to demand more and ask hard questions.

Unfortunately, the full potential of TVAAS has never been realized but that may indeed change with Superintendent Cash’s Teacher Effectiveness Initiative.  “Parents don’t know who the effective teachers are and where they are,” said Supt. Cash.  “We need to get into the data.  It’s been a black box. “

At Booker T. Washington High School, 1% was college ready in 2008, compared to 33% at White Station High Schools.  “I want to bring A.P. courses to all schools and create a common lexicon,” he said.  “We lose up to 50% of new teachers in first three years.  We’ll figure out the incentives to keep them and how to pay teachers more handsomely who are effective for our children.”

District Within a District

Meanwhile, administrators must break the “school house to jail house” pipeline that grips so many students.  For example, he said African-American boys in the fourth grade often lose interest, and instead of being told that “’you are precious,’ they are told ‘you are a failure.’”

Inside of Memphis City Schools, there is a small, excellent school district, said Dr. Cash.  “Memphis City Schools has 40 or more really good schools,” he said.  “But the truth is we don’t have a lot of time to improve the others.  We need to be aggressive.  It’s hard, messy work, but we will stabilize the system and pressure for results.”  He thinks that in four to six years, other urban districts will be visiting Memphis City Schools to learn from us.

We applaud Superintendent Cash’s candid, direct assessment, and there’s little doubt that his Teacher Effectiveness Initiative is the most important project in years in Memphis City Schools.  Unlike previous “reforms of the month” that seems to characterize public education, it has the promise of staying power and producing fundamental change to the culture of the district classroom by classroom.

We write often about Memphis’ Talent Dividend – the $1 billion payoff if we can raise our college graduation rate by 1% — and we’re pleased that Superintendent Cash has adopted this as one of his measurements of success.  With 58% of a city’s success determined by college attainment, his ambitious reform program for Memphis City Schools is absolutely essential to reaching that 1%.

It’s the Kids, Stupid

In an interview on Smart City, Timothy Daly, president of The New Teacher Project, said that school systems treat teachers as interchangeable parts rather than professionals.  The New Teacher Project is one of Memphis’ most unqualified successes in the national school reform programs recruited to Memphis, and its work with Memphis City Schools has proven that teachers with higher grade point averages and more qualifications can be attracted to our schools.  The New Teacher Project is instrumental to Dr. Cash’s teacher effectiveness program and an important partner for its work.

“We would define a quality teacher not in terms of what the teacher is doing but how the kids are responding to the teaching,” Mr. Daley said.  “For decades, teaching practices have generally been measured by adults watching other adults teach and categorizing the actions that they see in from of the room regardless of how the kids are responding to what is going on in the front of the room.  Typically, it’s been check lists of behaviors, and those check lists oftentimes include significant numbers of things that we don’t even believe contribute meaningful to student learning.”

To separate myth from fact, The New Teacher Project released a few months ago “The Widget Effect: Our National Failure to Acknowledge and Act on Differences in Teacher Effectiveness” and the research has been cited by Dr. Cash in the development of his Teacher Effectiveness Initiative.  The report concluded that although teacher performance is critical to student success, schools do not distinguish great teaching from good teaching, good from fair, or fair from poor, and how a teacher helps students succeed academically almost never factors into decisions such as how teachers are hired, developed, or retained.

Getting It Right

As a result, school districts treat teachers as interchangeable: less than 1% receives unsatisfactory ratings; excellence goes unrecognized because superlative ratings are the norm; professional development is inadequate and 75% of teachers don’t get feedback about improving performance; low expectations are common for new teachers; and poor performance goes unaddressed.

Remedies to these problems, according to The New Teacher Project, is to adopt an evaluation system that differentiates teachers in promoting student achievement, to train administrators to hold teachers accountable, to integrate the evaluation system with other policies and functions like compensation; and to address ineffective teachers through dismissal policies.

Daniel Weisberg, one of the authors of the report, said these “common sense recommendations…require uprooting decades of ingrained complacency about teacher performance.”  “We can’t afford to wait.  When an excellent teacher leaves, an entire school suffers.  When a poor performer remains year after year, whole classrooms of children fall behind, sometimes forever.  This is happening every day.  We have to stop treating teachers like widgets.”

Culture Shift

As Mr. Daly said in his radio interview on Smart City, “we found a culture of indifference to the quality of instruction (so) that in many districts they could not tell you who their best teachers were or who their worse teachers were, and they weren’t doing anything to help make sure good teachers stay, whether the teachers in the middle got better, whether the teachers at the bottom improved or left.  It led to a whole host of consequences that we didn’t realize were interconnected.”

As a result, many school districts have developed a culture where “work around solutions” are the rule, so ineffective performance is never targeted and principals that do address it are considered mean or vindictive.  It’s a reason why the real measure of Dr. Cash’s success will come in the classroom, but it also will come in the main office of Memphis City Schools, where the culture has strangled innovation and excellence for years.

In that culture, a principal can rate every teacher in his school as superior and no one will ever call him in for a conversation about it.  That will all change as the work funded by the Gates Foundation unfolds.

We hasten to add that we have no interest in beating up teachers.  Almost every one of us can cite one teacher who was a transformative figure in our lives. One of us here even carries to this day a letter written to him from his high school English teacher in 1966.  It is kept for inspiration and as a reminder of how teachers touch the future in shaping students’ lives.

From personal experience, we know the inspiration that an excellent teacher can provide.  That Memphis City Schools’ Teacher Effectiveness Initiative wants every student to have that same influence is reason for all of us to celebrate.