Sunday, August 05, 2007

Memphis City Schools' Plan Falls Short

Rarely has there been a more aptly named document than Memphis City Schools’ “Proposal for Expenditures of Additional State Revenue.”

It’s the Academic Affairs Department’s plan to spend $42 million in new state funds, and it does in fact feel much more like a proposal to spend money than a strategic approach to transform high priority schools threatened with state takeover.

In truth, the title reveals more than just the purpose of the plan. It also reveals something about the culture of Memphis City Schools, which lies at the heart of so many of its challenges.

One From Column A

Sitting in a meeting of high-level administrators putting the elements of the plan together, it’s telling that no one suggested a more inspiring, more uplifting name for the plan – something that suggests a commitment to innovation or to finding the levers for fundamental change in the district.

But the name of the proposal is just an indication of more substantive problems. More to the point, the “proposal for expenditures of additional state revenue” seems little more than a grab bag of every one’s favorite ideas with the objective of spending down the state’s money rather than creating the kinds of innovation needed in Memphis City Schools.

It had the expected impact in the governor’s office where it was seen as “more of the same” and as an indication of the district’s lack of understanding about the seriousness of the challenge facing Memphis City Schools as it relates to the 17 schools. It showed a lack of commitment to “doing what’s really needed” to turn things around, said one state official.

Group Think

Perhaps, the plan was just an unfortunate product of the kind of “group think” that often takes place in bureaucracies, but it’s hard to escape the conclusion that it’s similar to several programs and policies advanced in recent years that come from the district’s top-down approach.

While there are many reasons to praise Supt. Carol Johnson, she seemed to be a prisoner of a tightly-knit coterie of advisers who kept the circle small and the input from the outside smaller. It’s the kind of control and command style of management that marginalizes innovators in the district’s schools and makes it even more difficult to stimulate the kinds of bottom-up solutions that are truly needed.

In Memphis City Schools’ plan, it sets out “three main messages” that are in truth rather pedestrian - “intensive support for schools on probation, improve teaching and support for teachers and invest in academic and student support programs.” In other words, when it was read 210 miles to the east in Nashville, state officials read it as something that could have been written anytime in the past four years and lacked the sense of urgency or new thinking that’s demanded by the current crisis.

Something Outside The Norm

So, what dramatic approach is needed to turn around the 17 high priority schools around? Here’s what Memphis City Schools’ plan said: “Ongoing and focused professional development, modeling of effective teaching and assessment practices; ongoing professional collaboration; effective communication between school staff, parents and students; and visible tracking of student progress on a frequent and regular basis.”

While all are worthy objectives, they are read by education officials as warmed-over platitudes, but more to the point, they are read as givens for a major school districts, the kinds of things that should be taking place as part of its regular course of business.

Then, as if to punctuate the bureaucratic response to the problems of specific schools and their individual challenges and specific needs, the plan then essentially treats all schools the same.


Rather than giving each school the flexibility to customize its own strategies, the district’s plan talks about adding FTEs for this purpose or that purpose (down to the detail of one clerical position for the support team), performance-based incentives, lower student/teacher ratios for English as a Second Language (ESL), planning grants for schools interested in becoming charter schools, laptop computers, and adding 30 minutes to each school day.

All in all, it’s a collection of deserving ideas, but it lacks any sense that it is a real program of change or a real strategic approach pursuing a coordinated, interconnected philosophy for transforming these schools. There’s no feeling that there is a strategic thread holding it all together or that a specific outcome is being south.

While the bureaucrats of the Tennessee Department of Education normally tend toward the same sort of incremental thinking, these are not normal days. DOE officials only reluctantly become more forceful in exercising their power over the high-priority schools in Memphis, after years of doing all that they could to reduce their numbers and the scope of the “Memphis problem,” as it is called.

Something Different

But time has run out, and DOE is directed by a governor who never has to run for reelection again. As a result, there is a new sense of urgency communicated from Governor Phil Bredesen to his DOE minions, and impressed by the governor’s personal interest and his unyielding rhetoric, even DOE is looking for something more these days than the plan submitted by Memphis City Schools.

Reading the “Proposal for Expenditure of Additional State Revenue,” it’s hard not to wonder why local and state educational bureaucrats even feel the need to define strategies now.

How about trying something really revolutionary? Appoint the smartest, most innovative principals - with strong leadership skills - to each of the 17 schools, give them X amount of money and give each of them 90 days to develop a plan tailored for that specific school. These principals need to be the kind of leaders who can work with the neighborhood and parents to identify the needs that characterize that specific school and then individualize the tactical responses based on those needs.

The Real Change

Rather than treat the 17 schools as a monolithic group, this approach recognizes the fundamental truth about them – every one of them is different, with different challenges and with different strengths to exploit.

These are revolutionary times for public education. Around the country, districts are experimenting with exciting new approaches and new programs with promising results.

None of that energy is captured in the plan of Memphis City Schools nor is there any hint that it plans to joint the ranks of the nationally known districts that are well-known for their ambitions, their creativity, their virtuosity and their innovation.

In the end, that’s got to be changed before the 17 schools can be.


Anonymous said...

I am Kenneth T. Whalum, Jr., At-Large Commissioner, Position 2, and I couldn't agree with you more.

This present Board is either unable or unwilling to simply make decisions that deviate from the "group-think" mode.

I stated at the beginning of the so-called "interim superintendent search" process that the whole thing had become too politicized to even be worth the trouble.

I also stated that I didn't think we needed an interim at all, and that we should follow Dr. Johnson's organization chain-of-command, allowing the system to be operated as any corporation would in the temporary absence of it's CEO.

Of course, I have been out-voted on this, and other matters, with mind-numbing regularity, which is one of the downsides of having an elected school board.

Our system, moreover, is in much deeper trouble than many seem to want to acknowledge. We are losing quality teachers weekly. Our graduation rate is abysmal. We're pouring millions of dollars down the "consultant" black hole, including a recent contract to an individual in the Boston Mass area. (One of those things that make you go, "hmm...").

Let's go deeper, though. Have you noticed that all of the proposed "solutions" to the problems at the 17 "leper" schools require additional spending? Why is that? It's because there's an 800 pound gorilla in the room that noone wants to discuss, and by "no one" I'm including the so-called fiscal conservatives who whine any time ANY money is spent on anything other than their own interests.

The 800 pound gorilla, according to two successive reports by the Urban Child Institute, is POVERTY IN MEMPHIS. The reason MONEY is required to solve the myriad of problems in urban school districts (not just Memphis) is because the LACK of money in their neighborhoods and homes cripples the majority of city students to the point where they start school too far behind to EVER catch up.

I wrote a guest column recently in the CA that I hope many of you will read (or re-read) wherein I suggest some solutions, but none of the solutions are going to be easy or free.

I have more to say, but let me close by saying a couple of things about the school board that I became a member of in January 2007:

1. We do NOT need an interim, but if we choose one (which is not a given with this board) we do NOT need to also select a "community relations" person to serve along with him.

2. If this board does not demonstrate some creative courage very soon I believe Governor Bredesen should absolutely takeover the system, and I think he should dismiss the entire board if he thinks that's what's needed. It's not about us, it's about the children.

3. Finally, the reason Bredesen hasn't taken over MCS is because he doesn't have the resources (financial or human) to make it work.

I won't take up any more of your time here, but I'd be happy to dialogue with any of you if you will email me at

Thank you!

Anonymous said...

Due to his future political aspirations, the Governor will never take any real or tough action with Memphis...he wants their support.

Anonymous said...

Your assessmnt of MCS is quite insightful. Unfortunately, the citizens of Memphis do not understand the complex nature of NCLB. The 'spin' that is put on MCS news does not contribute to full understanding of the problems that the district faces.

A good example is the CA's story (8-6-07)on Dr. Johnson's leadership to improve school performance. The constant reference to 17 high priority schools fails to recognize that there were 37 MCS on the TN 2006-2007 High Priority List. That list was published September 25, 2006. The most recent list, released today, includes 41 MCS as High Priority Schools. See the list at

Anonymous said...

The seventeen school on the "High Priority" list which have been discussed of late have all been on the list for six years. The state may intercede in a school or district after the school has been on the list for four years. Once on the list a school must meet achievement goals for two years in a row to get off the list.

The post tody on the MCS web site discussing the high priority list and current standing is a major attempt at putting a positive spin on the increase in the number of schools which are not making progress.

Anonymous said...

To Commissioner/Reverend Whalum,

Your cry that there is no need for an interim would leave the school system run by someone who no one feels is capable. I get this from discussions in MCS and in the business community.

k t whalum said...

Thank you, but who is "no one", and who's engaged in the "discussions at MCS"? Important questions.

Smart City Consulting said...

Commissioner Whalum:

Thank you for taking the time to comment on the blog post, and for your refreshing candor. We appreciate your help in explaining these issues and your positions.