Sunday, December 28, 2008

Racing For Education In Memphis

These comments were made recently at the "Race and Education" forum sponsored by New Path and Memphis Urban League as part of their important series of honest conversations about race and Memphis:

If urban school districts like ours had a dollar every time somebody said, "Children are our future," they'd never have a funding problem.

Unfortunately for these districts, we are long on platitudes and short on support.

That said, let me begin with the obvious: children are our future.

Or more precisely, well-educated African-American students will in fact determine our future - whether Memphis is on the front of the knowledge economy wave or stuck in its back wash.

We're Different

That's because, as most of you know, we are unlike the other 50 largest metros in the U.S. because of our bulge in children under 18. Next time you wonder why Nashville has so much money for parks, libraries, and public realm, just remember that percentagewise, Nashville has 25% fewer children than we do. That's a $200 million swing in mandated public spending for our community on schools alone.

The bulge of these young people is the good news, because while the rest of America's cities are grappling with workforce problems, we have the next generation of workers already here.

The bad news is that we are in the bottom rungs in percentage of our population over 25 that is college-educated, and if you want to know if a city is going to be competitive in the knowledge economy, that's the only number you need to look at.

It's the Rosetta Stone for future competitiveness.

Power of Self-Interest

While it's tempting to define this issue in terms of lost opportunities for young people, with images of how multi-generational poverty in shameful environments remains a birthright for too many of us, let's just define it in terms of our own enlightened self-interest.

Here it is: If we can move our metro from where it is today to just the median for the largest 50 metros, it would create $3 billion in economic wealth – more money in our cash registers, more tax money for our public services, and more ticket buyers for sports and arts.

In other words, rather than chase companies and sell our city at a discount by giving away taxes to make them love us, our economic development agenda for Memphis should be one thing – getting more students to high school graduation and into the line receiving a college diplomas.

The Memphis Overlay

Of course, there's no question that things in Memphis are always complicated by emotion and reality because of the overlay of race. Just think: anytime Memphis wants to really identify a serious problem, it puts African-American on it: black neighborhood blight is worse than neighborhood blight, black crime is worse than crime, black workforce, black elected officials, and black school system.

Here's the thing: we'll be the first African-American majority metro – not city, metro – of more than one million people in history, and if we want to preordain our own failure, we will allow our institutions to treat our demographics as a problem.

Instead, in a world characterized by its diversity, why shouldn't we be able to have a competitive advantage? Why shouldn't we be able to position ourselves for federal programs and foundation funding for projects that prove that an African-American metro can succeed?

In a world where talent is the key to whether a city succeeds or fails, why shouldn't we set our goal of being the center for 25-34 year-old African-American, college-educated talent?

Getting The Focus Right

And above all, that should be the goal of our schools, because in the end, Memphis City Schools is in the talent business.

It all begins there. Although all the school districts in our metro are important, we rise or fall based on Memphis City Schools, and routinely, its students are victims of the most insidious racism of all – low expectations.

Because of race, our city is lethargic in its push to demand the best urban district in the nation, and because of race, our region essentially assumes that there will only be a handful of students in Memphis City Schools who will excel and that we can't do anything to help the tens of thousands who don't.

To explain it, we talk about the lack of a student ethic, we talk about the stigma of "acting white" by studying and doing homework, we talk about the lack of mainstream values, we talk about the lack of parental involvement, and we talk about how black families are failing to emphasize the importance of education.

That's the rhetoric.

The Facts And Just The Facts

Here's the facts.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 43% of African-American fourth graders do one hour of more of homework per night. 45% of white fourth graders do, and African-American students are more likely than any other group to study more than one hour a night.

Black students are twice as likely to get help from their parents on homework every day than white students, and the lower the family income, the more likely the students are to get more help from their parents. Half of the poorest students' parents work with them compared to a third of the wealthiest students.

There is no substantial difference between white and black students in whether their parents attend parent-teacher conferences or school meetings.

Three out of four African-American children are read to by their parents when they are young.

African-American 12th-graders are more likely than whites to have perfect attendance.

A poll of African-American youths 11 to 17 found that their biggest hope is to go to college, valuing academic success just as much as white students.

Now What?

There are more and more of these kinds of statistics, and the fact that I am reciting them is testament to the relationship between race and education and our ignorance about our own history. After all, the history of the U.S. tells us that African-Americans learned to read even though the law forbid it, set up their own colleges when they were prohibited from attending white schools, established "freedom schools" in Mississippi to make sure "separate but equal" did not block opportunities of their children.

What do these statistics mean to me?

They mean that unequal outcomes result from substantially unequal opportunities – especially quality teachers, quality academic programs and quality curriculum.

Self-fulfilling Prophecy

Some are the result of the hopelessness that surfaces whenever we talk about Memphis City Schools, some is the connection between poor teaching and poor student achievement, some is the lack of challenging curriculum and innovative use of technology, some is poor teachers being sent to the poorest schools, and some is teaching to the test, and some is the prejudice that African-American students need remedial classes more than accelerated classes.

In other words, it shouldn't be surprising that students perform poorly when everything about their lives tells them that they are not as smart as white kids, that their schools are not as good as other schools, that the assumption from the outset is that they will not succeed and that their own city places no value on them.

It's The Teaching, Stupid

If you remember nothing else I said tonight, remember this: a study in Tennessee found that elementary school students who are assigned to ineffective teachers for three years in a row score nearly 50 percentile points lower on achievement tests than those assigned to highly effective teachers over the same period.

That's where we start…in every classroom and with every teacher.

In the end, there are no magic answers. There is only the magic that comes from the kinds of teachers that make a difference and do more than teach. They do in fact turn lives around. Most of us in this room can point to the impact of such a teacher in our lives, and we need to make sure that the current students in Memphis City Schools do the same.


Carol said...

And who produces most of the teachers in MCS (and most of the administrators)?

packrat said...

that sounds like a rhetorical question, carol....this post should be required reading by everyone in the Memphis Chamber of Commerce and every elected politician as well. I'm tired of the bullshit spewed by most of the local idiots on this subject. The future of Memphis lies in MCS, and its time for wholesale firings in the administration there; and next we should sue the state of tennessee for violation of civil rights as well as neglect of its duty for its criminal neglect of the situation at MCS, while they fall all over themselves to correct a much lesser problem in Metro Nashville schools.

Anonymous said...

This is right on point. Memphis will win or lose based on our ability to turn local talent into a viable, capable workforce. Charter Schools in Memphis are attempting to help increase the flow of talent out of our education system and provide potential improvements that can be adopted by the district at the same time. Rather than help charter schools, the district makes it difficult by: 1) reducing funding for charter students well below MCS students (charter schools get less than 75% of the amount spent by public schools for each student despite the specific wording in the state's enabling charter law), imposing more aggressive regulations on charter schools that reduce flexibility and increase costs to charter schools, and 3) illegally withholding payments from charter schools to extract compliance with onerous regulations that they cannot get through the states' charter law. Charter schools provide options to students in Memphis if we could simply get the district to behave.

Aaron said...

Start the Adopt-a-school program for churches

We have:

209 MCS
110,000 students
6300 churches in the Memphis area ( according to Google)

That's 30 churches for every school

And yet MCS still suffers from a mentor/tutor shortage.

If 3.3 % of the the churches adopted a school we would have a church matched with every school.

For proof of success see:

(November 24rth entry)

In short:

"The 2008 Kingsbury Story got a big push in the news today by the Commercial Appeal. Jane Roberts did a story on how Kingsbury went from 55% passing in math to 88% passing in math this past year and it is currently running on the front page of the CA on-line."

That's one church folks. This is doable!... if we live what we believe.

Anonymous said...


This is a fruitful discussion – and one we must have if Memphis is to have a smidgen of a chance of being relevant.

And while the stats you cite are encouraging, they don’t matter much sans results (meaning what kids know and can do). For decades and counting, the education establishment has blithely clung to like stats (teachers are teaching, youngsters are studying plenty, parents are reading to their kids, aspirations are there….and on and on).

These are measures of input, not output. Inputs have been in abundance for the past half-century (more access to education, more spending, more programs, and more reforms). Unfortunately, it hasn’t changed the outcomes for kids, particularly minority– the achievement gap between whites and African Americans is about as large as it was 25 years ago.

See this piece by Education Trust:

This is not only a civil rights and moral issue, but an economic one - that matters tremendously for Memphis (which has an African American majority). But the good news is that this is not an insurmountable problem – scads of urban schools are closing the achievement gap (and placing most of their youngsters on a path to college).

However, they do business much differently than districts like MCS (as do better performing systems in other countries). We have a system that does not work for students. It’s too big, unresponsive, and is populated by many teachers and staffers who did not do well academically themselves (though there are many talented teachers in the system).

Many wise people have written extensively about how district systems can change (one piece put out by the Skills Commission called “Tough Times or Tough Choices” - is especially instructive.

An overhaul will require drastic changes and urgently(recruiting from the top third of college graduates to teach, ending tenure and onerous union contracts, enacting longer school days and years, increasing salaries for high performing teachers). All of the other inactionable slogans are meaningless.

Plenty of examples exist of schools working for low-income and minority kids (as there are plenty of examples of whole systems doing well, though few in the U.S.) The conversation has to center around tough-minded reforms (much of what is happening in DC and New York) or we will be lamenting in a decade’s time, the same abysmal results we have now.

Anonymous said...

Well, the "Memphis Overlay section is hogwash. You build your house on sand out of desperation for any-old-house and you will reap what you sew again, FAILURE.

Quoting national stats on race behavior to espouse some correlation with Memphis stats is also hogwash.
I know for a fact that in my neighborhood those stats aren't even close to correct. If you're looking to fail, it looks like you have the recipe.

Then you quote stats generated by the Pre-Cash administration and quote the CA (head shill for the spinmeister) as if it was ANY kind of bastion of truth. More hogwash.


Why don't you just stick with designing something to work and following the plan. Design your rules and follow them.

You want to know why Memphis is ONE BIG FAILURE?
Because it can not follow it's own rules, it can not complete any plan, obey it's own laws and it does not enforce them equally regardless of race. That is NOT to say that whites get a break more often because if they did their neighborhoods would be as full of criminals as ours are.
Because you don't ever follow and finish a plan, you don't know why you failed, because you don't keep stats, you are hiding the reason.
Sinister motives, by leadership to hide your "crime industry".
That's right, Memphis cultivates criminal behavior.

Design a plan to work, use outside people with amazing stats to do it and follow it to fruition. You obviously don't even know what you want success to look like, you describe small symptoms of success as if they were the complete picture.

Packrat has it right, firings based on stats, reviews and reports, no more BS.

Anonymous said...

Who fires the parents?
How do we find qualified parents?

Anonymous said...

NO ONE fires the parents.

MCS had been supposedly "waiting on the parents" for so long they (MCS) looked very conspicuously like the biggest fools of all. They've stopped waiting thanks to Dr. Cash. Starting schools that are "in-town boarding schools for transient children" is a way of "firing the consequences of parents circumstance" which is more appropriate.

Maybe you don't know how bad some people have it thought they just won't give up that last little bit of hope. Kudos to them for all they've endured.
Maybe you don't know this but many poor people in Memphis have been cultivated over time to think they even have a soul. That's no joke. That is now a huge problem, no acknowledgment of the even possibility of a higher power, not even conceptually. They have no knowledge but to operate on ego and id only. We all know it's their responsibility but DENIED THE EDUCATION what the hell do you expect.
You got what you sewed.
Deal with it, effectively.

Anonymous said...

Good news is that Truancy laws are being enforced and MCS students know their parents can get in trouble if they miss too many days. As an MCS teacher I've seen attendance improve in the last few years.

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