Monday, January 29, 2007

My Wish For 2007

As food for thought for the new year, we’ve asked an array of people to give us their wish for 2007. The following is the second installment:

Shelby County Sheriff Mark Luttrell:

1. Better coordination of our resources to attack common problems in Shelby County. Crime is a seamless phenomenon in our community affecting equally Memphians and suburban county dwellers. The gangs, guns and drugs infecting the social fabric of Memphis also impacts citizens outside Memphis. It stands to reason that combining our efforts producing a force multiplier would better serve all our citizens. Our city council members and county commissioners are under constant pressure to hold down the tax rate and at the same time improve efficiency by eliminating duplication and waste. Those of us in elected and appointed executive positions must respect this and try as best we can to support these objectives through better collaboration. Crime can be progressively managed and reduced when law enforcement agencies work in partnership to tackle common problems. Seamless crime requires a seamless response.

2. A new county jail can better address the financial, crime and humanitarian needs of our community. Our present jail facility is inefficient, costly and does not meet the highest standards for both staff and inmates. Because of these deficiencies, we are wasting in excess of $20 million annually. Fortunately as a result of much hard work by our jail staff, we have
evolved in the past four years from one of the most dangerous jails in America to one of the best, achieving constitutional compliance and national accreditation. This is, however, an example that in order to save money for years to come a significant investment must be made on the front end. The result would be a facility that requires fewer staff working in a safer environment that meets constitutional standards at less cost. Sounds too good to be true? Not really. Many large urban communities have done this where progressive leadership and a visionary community resolve to address costly inefficiencies proactively.

Tim Sharp, Dean of Fine Arts, Rhodes College:

I would like for us as a region to get to the point where we can focus less on our own provincial concerns and become more interested in issues beyond our neighborhood and city. The world needs our input and participation, but as long as we are preoccupied exclusively with local concerns, our voice will not be a part of the broader conversation.

I lived in England for a year a couple of years back with my family. I became aware that the longer I was there, the more I was not thinking about the issues that constantly and regularly emerge in our area. That freedom allowed me to become more of a participant in global issues, which I believe was a good thing.

It is not that I believe we can be free to do this until we solve our local problems, but until we do so, we will be very narrow in our citizenship. So, for a wish, my wish is for us to move beyond ourselves locally.

Carissa Hussong, Executive Director, UrbanArt Commission:

I wish Memphis would stop trying to be something for everyone and focus instead on being the best at what it is. I am not sure if the lack of focus is based on equity or inferiority, probably both. Memphis will never have all of the amenities that other communities have, but what it does have can't be duplicated elsewhere. By trying to be something for everyone, we lose our perspective and squander limited resources. When we start focusing on being the best, we will find the opportunities that have always been sitting right in front of us and begin building the city we want to be.

Brad Leon, Memphis Director, Teach For America:

A few weeks ago the New York Times magazine ran an article entitled “What it Takes to Make a Student.” The article examined two contrasting paradigms of how to fix our urban public schools. One paradigm postulates that policy makers must tackle the challenges children face outside of the school (crime, poverty, inadequate housing, and health care); this world view suggested that children will never reach academic excellence until we’ve faced down and conquered these challenges. The second paradigm declares that educating children from low-income communities can be done through higher expectations, longer hours, and good old fashioned hard work. Though I believe that the proponents of the first paradigm are correct in their view that external variables can hold students back, I believe deeply in the second paradigm. My wish for 2007, then, is for excellence in our public schools here in Memphis. Since the debate over “excellence” in any endeavor is wrought with subjectivity I would like to take this opportunity to focus on three critical levers, the adoption of which I believe would fundamentally alter education in Memphis: A clear focus on ambitious goals, data analysis, and relentless pursuit of results.

The first and most important step in this process is a clear focus on results. Excellent schools have school-wide, class-specific, and individual academic goals that are aligned to the standards and are so ambitious that the achievement of said goals will put students on a different path in life. When I walk into a school I should know what the school is working towards and know that it is so ambitious as to inspire tears; when I walk into a classroom I should know what a teacher is working towards with his/her students; and when I talk to a student he/she should be able to tell me the goals for performance in class. These goals must be specific and measurable (e.g. every student in this class will reach 85% mastery of objectives/ every student will demonstrate 2 grade levels of growth in reading/ every student in this class will pass the AP exam with a 4 or 5) and must transcend the mediocrity codified in terms like “adequate yearly progress.” Students are entering a world that demands a higher level of skill and critical thought than at any time in history and our schools must respond by having a laser-like focus on the bottom line. Human beings respond to being challenged and as long as the challenge is truly ambitious, our children will respond.

Merely posting a goal on a wall is not enough; excellent schools are driven by data, and principals, teachers, and students know how close/far they are from the ambitious goals they set. Many schools currently look at data once at the end of a semester and once at the end of the year. These intervals are not sufficient to allow teachers time to adjust course to facts on the ground. A study entitled, “Why some Schools with Latino children beat the odds and others don’t” examined high-performing schools in low-income Latino communities and compared how they were different from low-performing schools with the same population. Though the researchers highlighted six different traits, one of their most salient findings was that the high-performing schools regularly analyzed data. Analyzing data allows teachers to focus their remediation on specific objectives, or skim material that students have already mastered. Assessing and analyzing data on material students have/have not mastered must become a weekly phenomenon. I know many people worry that schools focus too much time and attention on test-prep and that our schools have become stale as a result but so long as the tests are rigorous and align with the standards that students ought to know, we should demand to know where are students are currently performing. When I taught in New Orleans, my students couldn’t wait to get the results for their rubric aligned essays so they could chart their progress toward our goal of writing a level 4 essay (on a five-point rubric) or getting the results of their social studies test to see if they made 80% mastery on rigorous social studies objectives. I also looked forward to examining this data; I always felt a deeper sense of conviction when I saw the fruits of our collective labor. Being data-driven, then, has the added benefit of motivating students, teachers, and principals towards long-term goals.

Setting measurable and ambitious goals and assessing data will have little relevance, however, without a relentless pursuit of results. It is lamentable that education is one of the few professions where it has become acceptable, even mainstream to make excuses for poor performance. There are endless legitimate excuses for why our children are not succeeding: poor parenting, insufficient prerequisite skills, gangs, drugs, poverty, television, video games, laziness etc. These are absolutely factors that we should focus on and help find solutions to mitigate, yet once the door closes at an excellent school, everyone in the building is focused on the one thing they can control: progress towards academic results. Schools like KIPP, YES College Prep, and MACE champion this approach because they understand that the central front in our nation’s endless pursuit of equality of opportunity exists in the classroom. If there isn’t enough time in the day, an excellent school extends the day - the aforementioned schools run from 8:00am to 5:00pm Monday through Friday and from 9:00am – 1:00pm on Saturday; if a particular student is in danger of missing his goals, an excellent school will tap into whatever resources they can find to access tutors; if a teacher is not performing, an excellent school will find someone who can. In essence, relentlessly pursuing results mean leadership and a no-excuses mentality. Our children will not be served by an avalanche of reasons why they cannot succeed, they will be served when we hold them to the same expectations that exist in wealthy prep schools. It is criminal to expect anything less.

I am hopeful that 2007 will see my wish come to fruition. Superintendent Johnson’s vision of “Every Day, Every Child, College Bound” is the appropriate context with which to have a discussion about education in Memphis City Schools. If our children do not have the skills to compete for a college education, it is likely that their economic and life prospects will be limited. Now is the time for the community to ask hard questions about how we’re making this ambitious vision a reality. I realize that not everyone shares my vision of excellent schools and that this vision is less than comprehensive, yet setting ambitious goals, regularly assessing data, and relentlessly pursuing results are necessary prerequisites that exist in far too few schools today. Despite our learned cynicism I believe we can achieve excellence in our city schools because of the inherent greatness of the human spirit. As President Kennedy once said, “Our problems are man-made, therefore they can be solved by man.” No truer sentiment was ever uttered - our capacities must be, and are, equal to this challenge.

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