Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Education Reform in Memphis

I think the analogy with New Orleans and Memphis is particular is apt – and equally exciting in terms of potential for improvement. Like New Orleans, Memphis is a desperately poor city and its school system is very much like New Orleans’ was pre-Katrina: one of the very worst in the country. It’s not surprising, therefore, that nearly all of the TN ASD schools – 69 of the 80 – are in Memphis. Memphis is big: it’s the largest district in TN with more than 100,000 students, bigger than Newark and DC combined.


Below is a great editorial from last week in the local Memphis paper, which ends as follows:

There is a lot of public education reform occurring across Tennessee, especially in the state’s urban areas. Much of it has been driven by the state legislature, but nonprofit foundations also have pumped millions of dollars into the effort. Much of that reform has focused on getting excellent teachers into classrooms. It is not an exaggeration to say that the legacy Memphis City Schools district has been the biggest test tube in those reform experiments because of its tremendous number of failing schools. The ASD is the largest experiment under way to make those schools successful.

Barbic, who headed successful public charter schools in Houston, Texas, before taking the state job, made another point during his visit with the newspaper. Despite being led by some of the best educational minds in the country, very few large urban school districts have been able to make more than modest gains in student achievement.
Maybe that is because some of those districts still are basically operating on a 20th century model from which operational and educational guidance filters from the top down in a one-size-fits-all bureaucratic game plan.

We agree with Barbic that it is an unsustainable model if student achievement here and in the nation’s other public school districts is expected to rise substantially. Individual schools need to be given more autonomy to develop curriculums and operational models that best fit the students and the community their schools serve.

The ASD is trying to do that, and it is a topic that frequently arises in discussions between the new Shelby County Schools board and administrative staff. Talking about it, however, is one thing. Having the fortitude to make it happen is another.

Overall, keep your eye on Tennessee, especially Memphis – I confidently predict incredible things!

For an up-close-and-personal look at the nightmarish Memphis schools, please read one of my all-time favorite blogs/rants, which I sent around in Sept. 2011. It begins:


STOP THE PRESSES!  I just finished I Beat the Odds: From Homelessness, to The Blind Side, and Beyond, written by NFL star Michael Oher, the guy featured in the movie and book, The Blind Side.  I really enjoyed the book and hearing his amazing personal story (mom was a crack addict, never knew his dad, homeless, constantly moving and hungry), and was particular struck by how he described his experience in Memphis's inner-city public schools. 


I then included excerpts from his book (which you can read here) and then I concluded:

I get very emotional reading this – but not the heart-warming, inspiring emotions you'd expect.  Rather, I feel deep sadness, anger, and outrage because I know that Michael Oher is the unbelievably lucky exception – the needle in the haystack – and that every day, there are MILLIONS of Michael Ohers who are being failed – yes, by their families and our government (our childhood poverty rate has soared to 20% vs. less than 5% in Scandinavian countries, for example), but also by our schools.

I've seem estimates that FIVE MILLION CHILDREN attend chronically failing schools (that's about 10% of the total, which sounds right), where little or no learning is going on and where kids like Michael Oher are just passed along, year after year, on the path to jail, welfare, early death – in short, broken, ruined lives.  This is both deeply immoral, but also suicidal as a country, to waste so much human talent and potential.

Are schools solely to blame?  Of course not!  Parents/families are a much bigger factor.  BUT, Michael Oher's experience – whereby a high-quality school with great teachers who really care about and set high expectations for every kid – is no longer an anomaly.  We now know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, proven by hundreds of schools with tens (hundreds?) of thousands of kids, that high-quality schools CAN change life trajectories meaningfully for the majority (not 100%) of kids from even the most disadvantaged backgrounds.  It's not easy – in fact, starting and running such schools is that hardest thing I've ever seen – but it CAN be done.  It's too hard for this to happen quickly – it's going to be a many-decade journey of 1,000 miles – but for Pete's sake, let's get started rather than saying inane things (as, for example, Ravitch does) that these schools are only a small percentage of schools right now and are not THE answer, so therefore we should focus elsewhere.  In my mind, we should be looking for things that are working, even at a scale, and then: A) Try to scale them as rapidly as possible; and B) Take the lessons/"technology" that's working and spread it quickly in the existing system.

What also fills me with outrage is that people who know what's happening nevertheless fight tooth and nail to maintain the status quo.

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