There may be other cities that have done more in the past to improve their schools, but if you’re looking for ground zero for school reform for the future, it’s hard to think of a place more qualified than Memphis.

We were reminded of this special moment in history for Memphis City Schools again Friday with the release of the Diplomas Count report by EPE Release, which included our district in its list of “urban overachievers,” pointing to it as one of “21 urban districts exceeding graduation expectations.”  In addition, there was a new report by the Southern Education Foundation that underscored the risks to Memphis’ future from an economy grounded in low-skill, low-wage jobs.

At a time when the conventional wisdom is that urban school districts can’t be turned around, in the past couple of years, Memphis City Schools has taken lead position as the district poised to do great things in the coming years.  We’re praying that we don’t look back in five years and realize how Pollyannish we were, but there is no time in 30 years when the planets have aligned to promise the kind of progress that the 105,000 children in Memphis City Schools deserve.

It Takes a Village

The hopeful state in which Memphis City Schools finds itself proves that it does indeed take a village.  The district seems like the bicycle chain that’s been spinning for years and all of a sudden its sprockets are making contact and propelling us ahead.  There’s no question that we have a high hill to climb and it won’t come easy or without all of us joining in to make it happen.

We are in this enviable position because of the hard work of so many people.  There’s no overestimating the new ambitions by Memphis City Schools Board of Commissioners and the administration of Superintendent Kriner Cash.  It’s equally hard to overstate the groundwork laid by our philanthropic community, notably the determined work of the Hyde Foundation, and the research and programs by Partners in Public Education (PIPE) before it closed its doors.  Then there were organizations like The New Teacher Project that proved conclusively that new approaches can produce new results.

The ultimate test, as we have said previously, is in changing the culture.  That’s the same challenge facing Memphis Mayor A C Wharton as he launches his Strategic Business Assessment process patterned on the Department of Defense’s BRAC Commission that worked to right-size military bases.  As Carol Coletta says, culture eats policy for lunch, and all the improvements and policies in the world can’t succeed if the culture remains unchanged.

Superintendent Cash has acknowledged as much from his earliest weeks in Memphis.  In addition, although he had seen poverty in Miami, he was shocked by the depth and intractability of the Memphis version.  There’s little question that he’s been willing to ruffle some feathers since his move to Memphis, but these days, his advocates answer simply these days: It’s hard to argue with the results.

Exceeding Expectations

Who could have imagined just a few years ago that Memphis City Schools would be attracting so much national attention and have so many people watching the results here?

And yet, Memphis City Schools earned the confidence of the Gates Foundation as seen in the $90 million grant to put a qualified teacher in every classroom.  Meanwhile, Memphis will be a focal point for Tennessee’s $500 million Race to the Top program.  Both of these plan to make full use of The New Teacher Project, New Leaders for New Schools, Teach for America, and the charter schools operating within Memphis City Schools.

In its Diplomas Count report, Editorial Projects in Education (EPE) research center said Memphis City Schools was #4 in exceeding expectations in graduation rates.   The expected graduation rate by EPE was 43%, but the actual graduation rate was 62%.

Among the largest 50 school districts in the U.S., Memphis is 23rd in its graduation rate.  Memphis City Schools’ graduation rate surpassed Nashville, San Diego, Austin, Miami, Denver, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Dallas, Houston, Los Angeles and Las Vegas.  The national rate is 68%.

The report described its conclusions as “sobering,” because it “shows that today’s graduation climate is a tough one, particularly for minority students and those growing up in about two dozen hardscrabble communities where the odds seem stacked against graduating.”

A Diverse Majority

While the work of Memphis City Schools has growing national implications, there’s no question that every Southern urban district will be watching with a microscope.  For the first time, public schools in the South are majority non-white.

The significance to Southern districts was implied in A New Diverse Majority, a report by the Southern Education Foundation.  “Already the South is home to 40% of the nation’s low income people and has the lowest educational achievement and attainment levels in the nation,” it said.  “Class and race are more often than not accurate indicators of the quality of public education afforded to students.”

African-Americans continue to receive an inferior public education in racially identifiable schools, said the report, pointing out the interlocking problems of poverty, poor health, substandard housing, economic marginalization, homelessness, drug abuse and incarceration.

“The South’s transformation, under way for decades, establishes an important landmark in American diversity,” the report said.  “It also represents a historic milestone for the only section of the United States where, racial slavery, white supremacy and racial segregation of schools were enforced through law and social customer for more than two-thirds of a century.”

Attention: Economic Development Officials

Already, a majority of students in Southern public schools were eligible for free or reduced lunch. It makes the South the first region that has both a majority of both low-income and non-white students.  “Most Southern states already lag behind the rest of the country in measures of educational achievement and attainment,” the report said.

“Southern states have the smallest percentages of students performing at proficient or above on NAEP’s 4th and 8th grade tests.  Southern states also have some of the nation’s lowest rates for on-time high school graduation.  If these trends continue, the South’s future and that of its people will be bleak.”

The same can be said for Memphis, including the conclusion that the South will become increasingly marginalized in the global economy if its public schools continue to underachieve as their students leave school without the skills necessary for a high-wage economy.  “The social and governmental costs of a very large, undereducated population in a world economy and diverse society built on a high-wage, high-profit industries can become staggering.”

Most of all, every person claiming to work on new jobs, economic expansion and economic development should tattoo these words on their memories: “The South that once built and sustained an economy and a society on the under-education of children of color now has a majority of students of color whose education and human development are essential for its future in a high-wage, high-skilled economy.”

Questions to be Answered

In other words, excuses for continuing to reward low-skill, low-wage companies and industries are prescriptions for economic disaster or at least ensures a destiny as a city on the bottom rungs of American cities.  It’s past time for the people charged with our economic development policies to get serious about developing a workforce that can compete in high-skill jobs instead of a workforce that enriched the same traditional economic interests with low-wage jobs.

The report set out the questions for the South and for Memphis: Will we adequately educate, prepare and equip these diverse students?  Will we act now to help our new diverse majority of students become a vital asset?  Will we instead bequeath division, dependency and poverty to the generations that follow us?

With any luck, they just may be questions answered right at Memphis City Schools.