Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Another Interesting Week In Memphis City Schools

When it comes to interpreting the political tea leaves, Memphis City Schools Board of Commissioners is about as good as Mid-South Fair carnies.

Repeatedly, state government tried to send nuanced messages that should have alerted the school board members that Governor Phil Bredesen was closely watching their decision on the interim superintendent’s position as an indication of whether they understand how serious things are for the 17 city schools facing state action - which can range from more teacher training to state takeover with new principals, new teachers and new autonomy - and would rise to the challenge.

Instead, it sounds like many of the board members latched on to an unconfirmed (not to mention, inaccurate) rumor that the governor had already decided that he will not take over the 17 high-priority schools that have failed to make any progress for six years. With tireless lobbying by the union, academic directors and others concerned about their jobs, the board appointed someone who all but promised that he'd do nothing important while he's on the job.

Calling Jimmy Carter

If the board is thinking that Governor Phil Bredesen has made a decision against taking over the 17 schools, nothing could be farther from the truth. The governor has been diplomatic in saying that all options remain on the table, but moving up on that list with a bullet is the possible state takeover of the schools.

As a result of the school board’s vote for a perceived caretaker in the interim superintendent’s job, early indications from state officials are that they see it as a symptom of an inabilityby the board to provide the kind of leadership capable of dealing with the entrenched problems of these 17 schools and the thousands of city school students whose interests, they say, rarely seem to get mentioned.

From the vantagepoint of the state, it’s wasn’t just the final vote on the interim superintendent. It’s the road that the school board took to get there – missteps, overpoliticized process and lack of a businesslike approach to attracting and evaluating the best candidates for the job.

Mystery Train

Today in Nashville, officials revisited the options for Memphis, ranging from actions that nibble around the edges of the problem to the state taking over full management of the 17 schools. The discussion was marked by gnashing of teeth and deepening frustration, all of which reminds us how much Memphis remains a mystery to state government.

It almost doesn’t matter who’s serving as governor, there’s the feeling that Memphis is a third world political environment where nothing is as it appears and that regardless of the choice that they make in Nashville, it’s destined to blow up.

In its own strange way, that last notion actually encourages bolder action by the state. The logic goes like this: If things are going to blow up any way, let’s just go ahead and do whatever we think is best.

A $1 Billion Business

The renewed momentum for the governor to do something dramatic in Memphis may dissipate in the coming days, but there’s one overriding attitude in Nashville today: the Memphis School Board blew a great opportunity to prove that the state should have confidence that its members can provide the kind of leadership needed by the $1 billion public behemoth with 16,500 employees supposedly focused on the needs of 119,000 students.

Meanwhile, the district this week released the annual scorecard from No Child Left Behind, and as someone who has criticized the district’s inability to communicate its own progress, we were impressed by the energetic “spin” put on the state’s data by the communications department.

However, if you’re statistically inclined, the percentage increase of schools in good standing was 12 percent. The percentage increase of schools in high-priority status – which begins the process that can end up with state action - went up 11 percent.


But we don’t want to be a wet blanket. The greatest satisfaction is that Memphis City Schools outperformed Nashville-Davidson County Schools. Nashville’s performance as a district landed it on the “corrective action.” That didn’t happen here.

Meanwhile, the Nashville district of 75,000 students had 34 of its schools in the high-priority category, compared to 41 Memphis City Schools in a district of 120,000.

One final note to the MCS communications department. If you are serious about our accessing a complete list of schools and their status, as your news release stated, don't put the home page for all of state government on your release. Please give us the direct link to the No Child Left Behind data.

It's hard enough for the public - especially parents - to get good information about their schools, so help them out when you can.


Anonymous said...

Also keep in mind that 20% of those moving off the high priority list did so by being closed. And that we still do not know the status of the other 12% of the schools which were not mentioned in any of the press releases.

Anonymous said...

In order to get an accurate picture of student performance in MCS, we would need to know how many schools have come off the high priority list through Safe Harbor. When a student group fails to meet the State Performance Target or its own Gain Target but the percentage of students not scoring in the proficient range decreases by 10% or more from one year to the next, the group is considered to have met its Improvement Target on the basis of the NCLB Safe Harbor provision.

This provision gets the school off the list but does not help every child every day . . . . .

Anonymous said...

Anon 10:45:

You absolutely right. Given the magical numbers being presented so far, one might make an educated guess that the missing 22 schools are Safe Harbor schools.

Martavius D. Jones said...

Of the seventeen (17) schools identified by the State of Tennessee that fall into the "State/LEA Reconstitution Plan", five (5) of those schools will have new leadership in place when school starts. Three (3) of those schools had principals that completed their first year, three (3) schools had principals that just completed their second year, and three (3) schools had principals that just completed their third year.

Only two(2) schools, as of the issued date of the state report, had principals that had longer than 3 years. In five (5) instances, state officials said, "For the most part, the structures appear to be in place to help...become a continuously improving school."

MCS has been proactive in addressing the challenges facing these schools and others.

Smart City Consulting said...


Thanks for taking the time to weigh in and to explain the numbers and their meaning. We appreciate an elected official who takes the time to engage in a conversation with the public.


Smart City Consulting said...


By the way, you and your colleagues need to understand that the words that you are hearing from the Department of Education are classic for them. But they're not calling the shots on this; the governor's office is.

Smart City Consulting said...

Dear Smart:

We went to the Tennessee Department of Education’s web site and counted the following schools for Memphis that were not meeting the ”No Child Left Behind” standards for student performance.

Memphis Schools Not Making
Adequate Annual Progress
2-3 Years 4-5 Years 6+ Years Total
2007-2008 21 6 14 41
Improving 8 0 7 15
2006-2007 15 4 18 37
Improving 2 2 4 8
2005-2006 28 7 22 57
Improving 22 6 9 37
Source: Prepared by Memphis City Watch from State
Department of Education

We’re not exactly sure what this means, but after a good improvement between 2005 and 2006, the number of problem schools went back up in 2007; and, Memphis does need some good leadership in the coming year. The number that has been in trouble for 6 or more years decreased in the past year, but maybe it is due to school closure or safe harbor instead of real change. This needs to be understood in the context of the new “Fast Track” economic growth plan currently being dribbled out by Leadership Memphis and the Regional Chamber, we think.

Smart City Consulting said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Smart City Consulting said...

Sorry, we tried to post it for you, but we didn't have any better luck with the tables.

Smart City Consulting said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

Small matter to keep in mind during all this discussion of making AYP; The state will be raising standards over the next year. When they do MCS is not ready for the change and the numbers will, in all likelihood, skyrocket. Even now the standard for making AYP isone of the two lowest in the US. T-CAP is being abandoned as is Gateway. The only state with simpler tests is Texas and the TAKS. Personally, I would rather see the state move to the ACT as the exit exam.

Then at least the test would have relevance for a portion of the student population as it would be the entry to college. For those on the "not every child will be college bound" rant, keep in mind that the reason study by ETS shows that students entering the workforce straight out HS need the same knowledge base measured by the ACT.

Anonymous said...

I'm at a loss to understand how everything wrong with the school system is the Board's fault, and everything right that's happened is because of Dr. Johnson's glowing leadership. The Board, for the most part, has largely contributed to the success of the District by allowing Dr. Johnson to implement programs without very much trouble. We might remember a Board not too long ago that, almost surely, would have fought Dr. Johnson at every turn. I do say, for the most part, because there are some Board members who we know contributed to Dr. Johnson's decision to leave by their constant hammering. Although, if you attended, listened, or watched Board meetings you could see that in some instances Dr. Johnson contributed to the situation. While not agreeing with Commissioner Whalum's tactics or the context he placed his requests in, much of the information he requested for the Board re: graduation, drop-out numbers, etc. is data that they should be asking for.

As to the Governor, the CA has reported he sat down with their editorial board and when he was in town to announce the new BEP funding he sat down behind closed doors with business leaders, if he can do this why can't he sit down with the School Board? Maybe the Governor's office has been meeting with the administration for a while now, but how much of this information has made it up to the Board unfiltered?

As to the process the School Board took for the interim position. Yes, it was full of missteps, they made mistakes they should have stepped up and admitted to, they could have been much more clear on the frontend about what they wanted in an interim before they put out the call. But, if you strip away what observers thought would happen or initial thoughts about what the Board was preparing to do, it wasn't nearly as politicized as it was perceived or reported to be. A Board member didn't step into the position, neither did a former Board member who was lobbying hard for the job. Maybe it wasn't a perfect decision, but it wasn't a bad decision. Again, if you went to the meetings instead of responding to what was reported about the meeting, you might have written that Dan Ward is not expected to do nothing, but there was a list of projects developed by Dr. Johnson (at the behest of some Board members) of what is in the works that should be continued going forward. Do we really want an interim to come in at the beginning of a school year and start new efforts, only to have a permanent superintendent come in and have to deal with them? Doesn't it make more sense to implement plans that are on the table than to reconsider everything, especially if we can agree that Dr. Johnson has set the ship in the right direction?

Now, the $1 billion dollar business and "lack of businesslike approach." In some ways you are right, overall the Board seemed challenged throughout this process to come up with a plan and stick to it and to develop criteria and expectations on which to base their decision. But, again, from another viewpoint. What Board of a billion dollar business only discusses business when everyone is at the table and ends up coming up with the best decisions? While I am an advocate of open meeting laws, I have a hard time believing that our local elected officials can be expected to be efficient when sticking to the letter of the sunshine laws. Remember these are laws imposed on them by a state legislature that does not think the same laws should apply to them and their meetings. We have a delicate balance to strike in allowing for efficient government and openness and transparency. Think of how effective you would be on your job if you had to wait until you got to every meeting to find out how others were thinking about an issue. If you talked to someone before the meeting, you might get blasted in the media, and if you speak candidly in the meeting you might get blasted in the media. This is the environment that we live in. This is the environment in which even well-meaning elected officials must operate.

Unfortunately, we live in a community where we feel we can't trust that our elected officials will make a decision that is not politicized and is in the best interest of the people they represent. We expect political games to be played, it is the tint through which we see all interactions. You can see this in the initial process the Board put in place for the interim. They tried to be open and transparent, overly so, by allowing anyone to apply for the position. They probably should have gotten a list together either with staff help or a consultant, and made a decision from there. But, there again, would we have seen them through our political lenses and expected backroom dealings again second guessing their decisions and process?

I don't want to sound like too much of an apologist for the Board, but I think it takes a lot to weed through the perceptions and reporting to find the rest of the story.

We have challenges to face in the coming year(s). At least one Board member maybe two will be moving to the City Council and need to be replaced. The School Board still needs to find a permanent superintendent. State standards will increase over the next couple of years, thus almost ensuring that a new superintendent will walk into several schools going back on the high-priority list. Not to mention, 5 School Board members will be up for election next year. In addition to the majority new County Commission and coming City Council. The best thing we can do is try to put in good elected officials, who, at some point, we can trust to serve the public good. When we get these officials, as we have in several School Board members, we have to give them not just overarching constructive criticism, but the leeway to lead, make mistakes, and (hopefully), ultimately, build success.

Smart City Consulting said...

We would suggest it is the board's responsibility to advance a compelling vision for the future of Memphis City Schools, to identify its challenges and its pressing needs during this transition period, and then align those factors to hire a superintendent uniquely qualified to respond to them.

There's no sense that the board is getting the basics right to hire the kind of person that our students need. That begins with an assessment of where the district is now and where the board wants it to be in 10 years. Then, find the best person possible to head up the district.

At this point, we're concerned that the interim superintendent hiring is a foreshadowing of what the board may do with the permanent superintendent's hiring and that's a disturbing thought.

But for the record, and if this hasn't come across in previous posts over the past two years, it should have. We actually think the current school board is arguably the best elected body in this city, and because we in truth admire so many of them, our expectations are higher.

It's a paradox, we know, but because the board has shown fine leadership in recent years, we expect them to rise to the current challenges and inspire us by their actions. We're hoping that will happen in the coming months as our city turns its attention to what's most important - finding the right superintendent.


Anonymous said...

The buck stops with the school board, and if they can't handle the heat, too bad. They are the ones who are responsible for the performance of the schools, because they hire the superintendent and they approve the plans. They need to accept their share of the repsonsibility for the sorry state of city schools.

Anonymous said...

This school board makes high school kids look good in their decisions.

site said...

This will not succeed in fact, that's what I suppose.