Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Headline-making Events At Memphis City Schools

They won’t get headlines in the newspaper or be tonight’s “big story” on television news, but nonetheless, some national programs recruited to Memphis and transplanted into Memphis City Schools are producing “stop the presses” kinds of results.

Of course, anything that can be filed under a heading as portentous as “cultural transformation” discourages media interest from the get-go. They take longer than 20 seconds to explain, they have no red meat conflict and no emblematic event that’s a compelling visual image.

It’s a shame, because wonkish as they may seem, these are marquee programs with a singular focus – to improve students’ grades and change the culture of the large bureaucratic organization that is the nation’s 18th largest school district.

That’s precisely what’s being done by a triumvirate of programs recruited to Memphis in the past 24 months after national competitions – New Leaders for New Schools, The New Teacher Project and Teach For America. They are supplemented by other influential initiatives like the Harvard University Public Education Leadership Project and University of Memphis New Teacher Center.

Taken together, they form one of the nation’s most interesting, most closely watched school reform programs. They also symbolize everything that Superintendent Carol Johnson is trying to accomplish in her vision of Memphis City Schools as an innovator for U.S. urban school districts.

Already, New Leaders for New Schools has turned out 18 graduates who are uniquely qualified to become principals and assistant principals. In a nutshell, the program is producing a new breed of principals who are trained to be leaders, not managers. Instead of being trained to make sure the buses arrive and leave on time, their success is graded on their ability to improve the academic performance of students.

The principal leadership program chose Memphis in early 2004 after a national competition, and Memphis joined Washington, D.C., New York and Chicago as part of the New Leaders program. With more than half of all Memphis City Schools’ principals eligible for retirement in the next five years, this program has a historic opportunity to change the school district school by school.

As part of the agreement to get New Leaders for New Schools to Memphis, these specially-trained principals are given greater autonomy over school decision-making. The selection process is national in scope, and it is as rigorous as one conducted by FedEx for a key executive position. Selection is followed by six weeks of intense training and a year’s residency with a high-performing principal.

In addition to leadership in the principals’ offices, The New Teacher Project and Teach For America are meanwhile improving the quality of teachers recruited and hired for the classrooms of Memphis City Schools.

The New Teacher Project began its work in December, 2004, and Teach For America was announced a few weeks ago and will place its first teachers in city schools this fall.

Teach For America, the national corps of top college graduates who commit to two years as a teacher in high-poverty public schools, will start with 50 teachers. But by next fall, it will have 100 teachers in under-performing schools where they can make the most difference and create a culture of reform.

The program recruits nationally and selects recent college graduates from major universities. Last year, 17,000 applicants vied for 2,000 teaching spots, with 12 percent of Yale’s senior class and eight percent of Harvard’s and Princeton’s. Locally, Rhodes College has always been an active partner in the program. The 2005 profile of incoming teachers showed an average GPA of 3.5, and in addition, 93 percent held leadership positions in their schools or communities.

Teach For America builds on the momentum created by The New Teacher Project, which is proving that the conventional wisdom that Memphis City Schools can’t recruit high-quality teachers is just dead wrong. Building on its report, Missed Opportunities, The New Teacher Project believes that with good recruiting, up-to-date technology, efficient human resources system and better data, urban school districts can successfully recruit better teachers.

So far, in Memphis, it’s proving to be true. Already, The New Teacher Project has:

1) Restructured Memphis City Schools’ human resources department
2) Created the first online application and computerized tracking
3) Created the first teacher recruitment website - Teach Memphis, Change Memphis
4) Doubled the number of applications – from 1,519 to 3,464
5) Increased the grade point average of applicants from 2.87 to 3.10
6) Increased applicants with previous experience to 60 percent, reducing the reliance on new, inexperienced teachers
7) Quadrupled the percentage of applicants with advanced degrees from 10 percent to 41 percent

To us, that last statistic is most dramatic of all. Research and common sense tell us that the single most critical factor affecting a student’s academic performance is the quality of his teacher. Last year, The New Teacher Project recruited and selected just under 400 new teachers for Memphis City Schools, and with current attrition rates in city schools, the program has the opportunity to have impact in the short-term by hiring a cadre of better educated, smarter, more experienced teachers for our city classrooms.

The reason all of this came to mind was because of an op-ed column by Nicholas D. Kristof in Sunday’s New York Times. He wrote about the need to remove obstacles for people who want to teach, but who do not have a teaching diploma. As the column pointed out, Colin Powell and Meryl Streep are considered “unqualified” today if they wanted to teach social studies or drama, because of the archaic teaching certification program that lies at the heart of our system of public education.

The columnist said that just to keep student-teacher ratios where they are now, the U.S. needs a 35 percent increase in the number of people entering teaching. He also emphasized that between 1971-74, 24 percent of teachers scored in the top 10 percent on their high school achievement tests, but now, only 11 percent do.

To complicate things even more, not only are there fewer 25-34 year-olds now than 15 years ago – three million fewer – but women are the most-educated, most entrepreneurial demographic group. As a result, there are fewer women choosing to enter a profession that has been historically dominated by them.

In other words, the U.S. faces a critical shortage of teachers, and districts across the country are waging recruiting wars for applicants. Who would have ever believed that Memphis City Schools wouldn’t be the district to come up empty-handed?

It just proves once more that many times the really important progress being made in this city doesn’t even hit the media radar, but nonetheless, these are milestones that shouldn’t just be reported, but celebrated.