Just about the time we’re buying into the pervasive Memphis narrative of conflict and dysfunction, along comes the Transition Planning Commission.
There’s little argument that controversy and personality clashes make for good TV and newspaper headlines, but it’s worth remembering that they don’t necessarily represent the reality of Memphis. Underneath the façade of the narrative driven by public sector frays, there is a current of good will and concern about the future of Memphis that more accurately reflects the defining characteristics of our community.
That’s the real lesson of the Transition Planning Commission, and for us, it’s just as profound as the recommendations for a unified school district. That’s not to say that the work product of the TPC is nothing short of impressive in its ability to defy conventional wisdom and deliver a report that is one of the strongest documents ever produced by a citizen board in Memphis and Shelby County.
It hits all the right notes, identifies all the right levers for school reform, and promises to create the kind of culture change that is fundamental to serious, successful urban education.
We remain suspicious about the specter of the Norris-Todd brigade’s tendency to interfere whenever they want to force the process to their own narrow interests, and during the process, we had no patience for some member’s attention to the municipalities’ school obsessions, but that issue aside, the TPC report is nonetheless a roadmap to better schools that’s worth taking.
All of us who care deeply about the education of children whose options are now too often limited by the convergence of poor families and poor schools should take the time to read the report. The Commercial Appeal reporter Michael Kelley has done a sterling job of covering the work of the TPC, and the following bullets are some of the salient points Mr. Kelley listed as key recommendations in his coverage:
■ Expanding pre-kindergarten by an additional 2,500 slots across the county to ensure access for all four-year-olds.
■ Doubling the number of students participating in advanced placement courses and dual high school-college enrollment opportunities.
■ Making hiring by mutual consent whereby teachers and principals choose to work together.
■ Dismissing teachers and instructional leaders who cannot or will not improve.
■ Forming a student congress to identify and elevate student priorities with district staff.
■ Creating a business advisory board to advise the district on course development and business operations.
■ Pursuing a rigorous set of math and science courses throughout the system.
■ Prioritizing and protecting the arts curriculum.
■ Ensuring that each school has a formal parent organization such as PTA or PTO.
■ Focus on absenteeism, defined as unexcused absences of five days or more per year.
■ Emphasize clear behavioral expectations and progressive discipline.
■ Focus interventions on students who are likely to drop out before graduation.
■ Implement a district strategy to reduce the time special education teachers spend on clerical work, including adding special education clerical assistants to the staff.
■ Ensure that students have access to a nurse.
■ Use multiple measures to assess teacher performance.
■ Attract and retain better teachers by redesigning teacher compensation.
■ Close 21 schools to raise the utilization rate in southwest and northwest areas of Memphis.
■ Provide school security and safety with a mix of law enforcement officers and private security.
■ Reduce the size of the central office staff below its current combined MCS and SCS level that saves the district $8 million annually, or 15 percent below current spending.
■ Offer incentives for new school operators (charter school operators, for example) to use existing facilities.
To understand the context of these key points and how they are interlocking to create the high-quality district sought by the TPC, you should check out the Commission’s recommendations.
To The Point
We know it’s the wonkiness in us, but what we like most about the 120-page, 172-recommendation report is that it is long on specifics and short on hyperbole. Yes, there’s the occasional and obligatory use of “world-class,” but more to the point, there’s carefully stated justifications and an absence of overblown rhetoric.
There are of course concerns that each of us have. We admire the TPC for spotlighting more pre-K opportunities for an added 2,500 students, but we wish that it had recommended immediate implementation; however, the members of the TPC appeared to stay grounded in the financial realities facing the new school system even as others lobbied for them to add bells and whistles to the plan that would likely be unaffordable.
We’ve written for seven years about the merits of a multi-district system, and in a large part, that is the core of the TPC’s Multiple Achievement Paths Model. It not only allows for educational responses to specific parts of the county, it also drives a stake in the heart of the argument that the system is one huge monolith destined to be bureaucratic, inflexible, and rigid.
The report suggests the closing of 21 schools, and while this has been the third rail of school board politics, it is overdue. There are elementary schools in Southwest Memphis within walking distance of each other that have much less than 50% capacity, and every dollar wasted on keeping one of these low capacity schools open is a dollar that can’t be spent on high-quality teaching.
Just Do It
School closings, financial improvements, outsourced transportation, and personnel systems were some of the operational and systemic efficiencies identified by the TPC, and while they appear logical and well thought-out, they pale by comparison to the educational philosophy and the path to executing it.
While the unified system is still a year away, much remains to be done. First and foremost, it needs the approval of the Tennessee Department of Education and the Shelby County Board of Education. Hopefully, this will not be taken as a signal for the games to begin and that approval will come promptly.
After all, the only thing riding on it is the future of 150,000 students.
Many of the solutions offfered by the TPC are non-traditional and innovative. The next step is to find the non-traditional and innovative leader to implement them. That person is probably not currently in Shelby County. That person is probably somewhere in the education sector. The challenge is to accurately identify this type of talent as no one has ever done it before.
how many will survive the CSB once Memphis assumes control?
While some of the TPC educational service recommendations are needed, they are rolled in slowly – and not funded adequately. The so-called funding is primarily through “cuts” that both MCS and SCS school system staff state are over-estimated. These custs, so-called cost efficiencies would deeply decimiate Memphis employees’ families, including students, and Memphis neighborhoods.
The TPC failed on some of its most important tasks, primarily funding. It did not appear to explore the $20-30 million dollars lost in education funding annually through PILOTs; did not encourage non-profits, hospitals and businesses to contribute more to education (as some communities have done); and did not recommend any review of tax structures; or raise even some questions about the flat funding (or decreasing dollars) from local and state sources for the last four years that has already resulted in more than 1700 position eliminations (hurting student services).
The TPC deliberately failed to add union representatives to its committees – though it added business representatives primarily. This was done despite a guiding principle saying employees are the most valuable resource. The TPC has tried to assure outer county students and employees of “stability” though not the inner county (Memphis) students, families and employees. The disparities are glaring – and inappropriate in 2012. The TPC appears to have learned nothing from 1968.
and the CSB learned nothing from 1973.
‘MO MONEY isn’t the answer.
I agree the TPC has done Yoeman’s work. The Boston Consulting Group far exceeded my expectations in their contribution to the process, acting as the dedicated staff a successful outcome required.
The biggest disagreement I have with you is this: “We’ve written for seven years about the merits of a multi-district system, and in a large part, that is the core of the TPC’s Multiple Achievement Paths Model. It not only allows for educational responses to specific parts of the county, it also drives a stake in the heart of the argument that the system is one huge monolith destined to be bureaucratic, inflexible, and rigid.”
Go back and read the recommendations on organizational structure, beginning on page 90. The regional offices envisioned are only charged with two tasks: supervising principals and engaging parents. All of the cirriculum development, performance measurement, teacher professional development and everything else that goes into improving student acheivement will take place in the central office. This is absolutely NOT a multi-district model. The TPC plan takes pains to point that out. From page 93, “The regional office design is intentionally not one where each region serves as its own small district with a wide array of central office supports. Instead, the focus is targeted on two critical roles. The primary role of the regional office is to foster and develop greater instructional leadership among principals. In addition, the regional office has an important role in supporting parent, family, and community engagement.”
As far as the autonomy that is supposed to lure the suburbs back in, here is what the TPC has to say: “The goal of this structure is to give each school, regardless of its status or location, the support and autonomy that will best enable it to deliver on the district’s educational priorities.” That is the full extent of the plan’s definition of what autonomy means. There are NO policy recommendations on what a school must do to acheive different levels of autonomy and NO definitions of what those levels are.
Like you, I am tremendously encouraged by the TPC’s work. They have clearly framed some hard choices for the unified board and the board is now required to go on record with their stance; are they more about the adults who make their living in the system or the students who are busy defining their futures? I believe the new blood on the board will tilt the balance in favor of good choices.