Every Memphian should be excited about our two recent education wins – The Gates Foundation/Memphis City School’s Teacher Effectiveness Initiative and Tennessee’s national victory in President Obama’s “Race to the Top (R2T).”  These twin victories offer Memphians and Tennesseans the opportunity to lead on the issue of education reform.

Unfortunately, leading often requires a fair degree of pain for long-term gain and the state’s proposal may radically alter public education in our state and in our nation.  Though much has been written about our state’s proposal my standing questions are (1) What are the implications of the Achievement School District in Tennessee’s, R2T proposal? and (2) What amount of creative destruction to our current conception of a “school system” are we willing to endure if the end result is stronger student performance?

Achievement School Districts

In the lead up to the special legislative session on education in January, I was struck that virtually all of the media coverage was focused on the governor’s proposal for how teachers would be evaluated.  The concept of evaluating our teachers based on how much their students learn is highly controversial in some quarters (even though it shouldn’t be) and worthy of coverage but this fight subsumed talk of the boldest reform: The Achievement School District (ASD).

Tennessee’s proposed ASD is modeled on Louisiana’s “Recovery School District” (RSD) that followed Hurricane Katrina.  One might infer that the RSD was simply designed to bring New Orleans back from they city’s devastation but education reformers had a different thought in mind: they believed that the RSD’s purpose was to bring New Orleans back from the school system’s abject failure in preceding decades.

While there is much more I could write about the RSD, its most radical features were to suspend collective bargaining agreements in systems that sustained a certain level of academic failure (read – no tenure + all teachers and school system employees are at-will) and it radically decentralized the entire school system in New Orleans.  Today, thirty-three New Orleans schools are in the centrally run RSD while fifty-one schools are run as independent charter schools.

Consider both of these elements for a moment.  What if all teachers in Memphis became at-will employees and 60% of our district became charter schools?  That these questions did not surface in the public domain more prominently is simply puzzling.  The mainstream Tennessee media focused on the prospect of the state taking over 8 schools in Memphis but missed the larger story.

The larger story is that our state is raising its standards for what students need to know while increasing its proficiency targets.  On many state exams, a student in Tennessee needs only score between 40-50% to be considered “proficient.”  Though the state has yet to determine its proficiency cut scores, it has made a pledge to set these scores in line with our highest national standards.

Therefore, the big story is that almost every school in Memphis will soon be considered failing and may be eligible for inclusion in the Achievement School District.


There are easy rejoinders to mention of this possibility (1) It is unlikely that future state commissioners and governors will be interested in taking over an entire school system because there are too many unknowns in the implementation (2) there are incredibly tough politics involved in a state takeover (especially navigating messy racial politics and the likely nuclear response from teacher’s unions).

However, in a state that is getting redder by the moment, it makes good political sense for a governor to be seen as especially tough on the issues of education and crime.

What, for example, does a republican governor lose if he empowers an education commissioner to take over a large percentage of Memphis City Schools and turn them over to charter school operators?  A future republican governor is already unlikely to carry democrats; most republicans in Shelby County would likely be in favor of massive decentralization of our current school system and increasing numbers of democrats are joining the education reform movement.  In other words, this is a real political possibility.

Political calculus aside, most Tennesseans are in for a rude awakening when our standards and proficiency cut scores go up.  More schools in Memphis and Nashville will be considered failing but the Shelby and Williamson Counties of the world will also wake up one morning to headlines that read that their school systems have gone from grades of ‘A’ to grades of ‘C’s’ or ‘D’s.’  I wrote in an earlier blog that there will be two reactions to this – incredulity that the new standards reflect reality or the sober understanding that many of our schools have failed in their core educational missions: preparing citizens for the workforce and preparing citizens for participation in our republic.

If most schools in Memphis become “failing” under the new standards and cut scores, the drumbeat to consider alternatives like charter schools will increase in both the legislature and among parents who will vote with their feet.  Combine higher rates of academic failure with questions about why a district that continues to lose students significantly increases its budget and there will be titanic challenges to the system in its present form.

Major Questions about the Future of Memphis City Schools

Given the major forces at play, how much creative destruction are we willing to sanction if the end product is stronger student achievement, better long-term job prospects, and a more vibrant democracy for our students?

The question may seem like a no-brainer to some but there are real short-term costs for these long-term gains.  Consider whether you want the lowest quartile of teachers in our school system to remain on payroll; if you do not, what happens to our community when a further 2,000 people are unemployed?  Who replaces them?  Do we have the kind of talent pipeline necessary to fill their spots?

The idea of an ASD prompts further questions about our current service model where a central office is ultimately accountable for the success of our schools and where a singular board and superintendent are responsible for the vision and implementation of a strategy for success.  More and more school systems are opting for a decentralized model where principals have budget authority and only opt to do business with the central office if the central office has services a school wants.

In a decentralized model, for example, principals and their staff would ultimately make decisions about whether to do block scheduling, implement a certain discipline policy, or have a longer school day and would accept much greater accountability for student achievement.  School systems like New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles are increasingly moving to decentralized service models – is Memphis next?

Maybe yes and maybe no but it is clear that rising standards + rising cut scores + the passage of legislation sanctioning an Achievement School District + Tennessee winning Race to the Top point to the likelihood that our education system in Memphis may look entirely different five years from now.

More people should be discussing this…