Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Memphis Gets D's And F's From City Students

It’s nothing short of hypocritical for us to wring our hands over the D’s and F’s given to Memphis City Schools students in the Tennessee Department of Education report card.

After all, that’s exactly what we as a city preordained for them.

Yes, these 105,000 students made D’s and F’s, but what did we expect?

Making The Grade

These students come from neighborhoods that earn D’s and F’s on their best days. Crime fighting in their neighborhoods gets D’s and F’s. The low skill, low wage economy where they find their jobs deserves D’s and F’s.

Opportunities to break the cycle of multi-generational poverty that grips them are D’s and F’s. Day care and early childhood for them largely get D’s and F’s. The social network that teaches job skills to middle class kids and connects them to employment earns D’s and F’s.

Housing conditions get D’s and F’s. Literacy programs and community resources earn D’s and F’s. Risk factors for child development are D’s and F’s, and so are coordinated social services. The ratios of children to working adults are D’s and F’s, and so is economic integration.

Health care and access to it are D’s and F’s. Public transportation gets D’s and F’s. Infant mortality rates earn D’s and F’s. Physical activity and sexual activity are D’s and F’s.


And yet, in the midst of this D and F world, Memphis City School students are supposed to earn A’s and B’s like the middle-class kids in the suburban school district.

It’s the parochial residue from the puritanical work ethic: they should pull themselves up by their bootstraps. These are people without boots, much less the energy to pull them up.

It’s the same short of policy by bromide that fuels the mantra of higher standards as if standards alone will give these students better opportunities and choices for the future. More to the point, the ability of Memphis’ students to achieve these higher standards won’t result only from more qualified teachers in the classroom. They will be achieved only when all the other D’s and F’s in these students’ lives are equally addressed.

The good news is that change is in the wind. Finally, after more than two decades of pretending like the poverty in our midst could simply be ignored, there is a growing understanding of its cancerous impact and growing interest in getting deadly serious about attacking it with the full force of our governments and civic organizations.

Geography Lesson

Its target is what Robert Lipscomb, Memphis director of housing and community development, called the “geography of poverty” in a meeting yesterday at Leadership Academy. As he pointed out, it’s no mystery to any of us where the problems are, and because of the concentrated nature of the poverty there, the “city of choice” concept is merely vaporous rhetoric.

There, choices are cut off. There is a greater likelihood of a future in the justice system that in a system of higher education. There is little choice for entering the economic mainstream, because there aren’t the paths to self-sufficiency that exist in neighborhoods with higher incomes.

There is a lesson learned by these young people that is more powerful than anything they ever learn in a city classroom. It’s that everything in their world teaches them that the city in which they live places little value in them.

Tale Of Two Cities

Reasons for optimism center on Memphis’ “City of Choice” agenda praised by the Brookings Institution in a report early this year. It’s a new, strategic way of looking at public policies and public investments – with an eye of creating choices for every one in our city. It’s about giving talented people choices for the future, poor people choices for better jobs and middle class families choices for staying in Memphis. It’s about using the federal stimulus funding with the end in mind and leveraging local government funds to propel real change.

But first and foremost, it’s about the geography of poverty and the no man’s land that traps more people in poverty in Memphis than the entire population of Chattanooga.

It’s a city within a city. And as it always is, when the national economy sneezes, poor people catch pneumonia.

Harsh Realities

That’s why in the city within a city, it’s almost impossible to find a family that isn’t on welfare. There are 50,000 vacant houses, and the density of the neighborhood is half of what it was 30 years ago, making public services more difficult to deliver and more difficult to have impact.

In the city within the city, neighborhoods have so little value that Shelby County Board of Commissioners will turn over 140 lots to a builder to construct even more homes that earn D’s and F’s.

In the city within the city, more than half the families live on less than $8,700 a year. Children there almost have no friends who weren’t born out of wedlock and whose mothers aren’t single. Incredibly, the mean age of death in some poverty-stricken zip codes is less than 60 years of age.

Vigilant Vigils

Here’s the thing: we were appalled by conditions of the dogs at the city animal shelter, and we could have easily joined the people who held vigil there. But we think there are reasons to hold vigils on the other days of the years when it’s not animals, but people, who are being emotionally starved and educationally malnourished.

We wonder why we never see the picketers in front of Planned Parenthood walking in front of City Hall demanding better chances for every child once they’re born.

There’s little argument here that it was time for a vigil at the animal center, but we’re past time for vigils demanding action to change the lives of the 151,000 people held captive in the geography of poverty in Memphis.

As former Indianapolis Mayor Steven Goldsmith said: “It’s not just that poverty is morally inappropriate. It’s also economically dangerous.” That’s why it’s in the best interest of everybody in the region that we not only get serious about fighting poverty but that we become the national model for it.


Dr. Maia said...

Amen Smart City but what shall we do to be saved?

I say that the level of expectations, employment, employment and employment, are too low and is another reason why our institutions of learning should get D's and F's.

Believe it or not, there is more to human life than economics, which seems to be the golden aim of state based education. Don't get me wrong here. This is not a plug for "faith based" education, which is actually more belief based than faith based. I am advocating the need to design an educational system with information, knowledge, wisdom and understanding of the human being first as its primary foundation.

When it comes to the idea of what it means to be a being of the human species, we are still operating on a concept of self formulated way back in the dark ages.

There are too many questions about the human being and how that being makes meaning out of its experiences with the environment that children, and some adults, don't yet know how to think about, let alone discuss.

We need to go back to ground zero on the issue of the purpose of education and rebuild on another set of priorities, aims, goals and objectives, like for the good of the individual, for the good of the state and for the good of industry, in that order.

Oh, by-the -way, don't expect the University to lead the charge for educational change. Last week a college professor fail to connect the nation's Creed with the nation's Declaration of Independence.

Anonymous said...

Business should help drive the curriculum reform and in turn the educational system should drive the innovation. It's a simple mutually-beneficial positive feedback cycle.

Our students should not have to wait for or after college to receive their working education in business or the "real world."

Midtowner said...

SCM - "... demanding better chances for every child once they’re born."

This is where your argument fails.

Children in poverty have the opportunity to learn. So it's not a matter of offering them another "chance", it's a matter of getting to take advantage of the opportunity that is already before them.

The people you must reach is the parent(s) of these kids. If the parent doesn't think education is important, then neither will the child.

And while education is very important, we must realize that it isn't the end-all solution. Some people are just not destined for college. My brother was a high-school dropout but now owns his own very successful business. He does just as well, if not better at times, than I do and I have a master's degree. He is his own boss.

A friend of mine quit going to school after the 7th grade. He retired to a less stressful life in Mexico by the age of 40 after running his own construction company.

I worked for 20 years at a corporation before striking out on my own. And what I do now doesn't require a college degree.

In fact, some trades pay more than I made. For example, a good, certified welder can make a whole lot of money.

However, we all know that it is difficult to overcome the odd if you drop out.

So lets do something different.

We also need to end the welfare poverty culture. Neither of my parents finished high school, but they made sure that I did. Had they taken the attitude that since they didn't finish high school and did well, that their children didn't need to finish school either then my life would have been completely different. So let's change the attitude of the parents in welfare poverty culture.

Let's give the parents an incentive for their kids doing well in school. Perhaps with every report card, there is a check for the parent if the child achieves good grades.

On a 4.0 scale:

$100 for 3.5-4.0
$75 for 2.5-3.4
$50 for 2.0-2.4
$0 for less than 2.0

A $100 may not seem like much, but it's a lot of money to someone who doesn't have it.

Another big factor is that many kids drop out to deal drugs which they see as a shortcut to money. Why sit in a classroom when you can make enough money selling dope on a corner? They're willing to risk their lives and jail for the near-term opportunity to make money.

Next, let's reduce the growth of the welfare poverty culture. You can't continue to grow the welfare class and expect things to get better.

The Chinese slogan "Have fewer kids, live better lives." should be adopted by our welfare system.

We should have a "one-child policy" for those who are receiving government assistance. No need to be as drastic as China is in enforcing it but simply use economic incentives.

A simple incentive is to require than any woman who draws some form of welfare to have a birth control patch applied (or shots), I believe that they're good for three months or longer, or an IUD inserted. If they want to continue to draw the money then every three months they come in for a new patch or shot. No extra money will be given for additional children.

You could even extend it further and have any female in the household over 13 also be require to be on the birth control so that the welfare culture doesn't pass to the next generation before the girl is even out of high school. If there were a birth control for men, then I would advocate the same for them ... and condoms are not a reliable form of birth control.

I would even go so far as to offer a bonus payment for VOLUNTARY sterilization.

If you reduce the number of people be born into poverty thru the birth control methods outlined above then you have more resources for those who need it.

To sum up, we should:

1. Pay an incentive for parents to motivate their kids.

2. Legalize drugs. This will remove one incentive to drop out. It will reduce gov't cost and provide a new stream of revenue.

3. Reduce the growth of the welfare poverty culture.

Smart City Consulting said...


Here's the thing. You're operating under a delusion that poor kids have the chance to learn. You need to see Hank Herrod's presentation at Urban Child Institute. Because of nutritional deficiencies and emotional supports, the synapses of poor kids start are winnowed away and it does in fact affect their capacity to learn. That's precisely why we have to get serious about early childhood intervention.

The greatest danger we have in addressing these complex, confounding problems is trying to overlay a middle-class perspective and understanding onto the issues.

Smart City Consulting said...


PS: We like your three recommendations.

Louise said...

When I was with MCS, I tried hard to convince the administration, and bring up at every chance to members of the Board, that we needed to be partners with Robert Lipscomb in his HOPE VI projects.

Robert was very open to doing this.
Particularly with Clairborne Homes and MCS properties - Vance Middle and the closed Alonzo Locke Elementary. MCS owns a lot of acreage in a concentrated area. A new K-8 school could be built on the site, eliminating the under performing and bunker-like Vance Middle and replacing Alonzo Locke and perhaps Georgia Ave.

The point is that in order for the development and the neighborhood to even have a modicum of a chance to survive we need to bring that continuum of education back. The school should anchor the neighborhood, just like in the "old days". MIFA already has invested in the neighborhood and STAX is not far away. Even better, a few drug houses and drug apt. houses can be eliminated along the way.

One of my biggest disappointments during my tenure at MCS is that the MCS support from the Administration was non-existent. Perhaps the new Administration might look into the concept again.

The school should be considered for a completely public or a non-profit charter.

Little steps with perhaps big positive consequences.

Roger Hemingway said...

At least one new study points to more nutritious lunches as a proven method of improving test scores (and I would argue, more time and emphasis on getting the kids to eat the free breakfasts, too).


Midtowner ... it's not fair to today's kids to hearken back to a time when not finishing HS did not doom you. Even 25 years ago, places like Memphis had decent-paying jobs with benefits for people who didn't finish HS. One of my friends growing up, his father was a HS dropout working at Kellogg's. That is not possible in this global economy ... your parents not only did not have to compete with China and India -- they didn't have to compete with England or France or Germany or Japan because most of the rest of the developed world was utterly destroyed by the two great wars. Predictably, 30 years after WW2 ended, those nations had rebuilt enough to begin competing with the U.S. and 30 years later have social welfare infrastructures in place such that they're businesses will be lapping us soon enough (because they don't have to provide healthcare, worry over traffic jams, build private broadband, etc.). Do not delude yourself, Midtowner. Your parents just like my non-college educated parents may have worked their tails off ... but they were playing against single-A baseball teams and kids today are going into a Major League world economy.

There is also the perpetual blindspot for white Memphians, the old Memphis plantation mentality that persists to this day. And national trends show us that right now, the unemployment rate for African-American men aged 15-24 is more than 30 percent ... it's nearly 13 percent for African-American men WITH COLLEGE DEGREES.

Aaron said...

Roger: I am concerned for my own kid's future even with them having college degrees. What we saw happen to low wage/ low skill laborers in the 1960's during the post-industrial transition is perhaps a foreshadowing for what we can expect for the middle class and college educated. The college educated are and will continue to be the second wave of job loss.

It will take a concerted effort to re-think how to make American workers will once again become more economically attractive to companies. My brother says we just need to wait until the standard of living in India and China reaches our level then we'll see the jobs come back. That's all good and fine but then I remind him that we don't have those type of natural resources to sustain our current standard. A big future role for our educational system will be redefining our current standard of living. Both for the sake of our natural resources and jobs.

As a sidenote: If you are curious to see how the U.S. "retrained" the first wave, take a look at the 700 % increase in incarceration rates from 1979-today. Just a theory but disturbing nonetheless.

Midtowner's point is still valid. The people that thrive in our current job market are the innovators, visionaries and CEO types that can capitalize on the wage disparity gap. The problem is that they represent a small percentage of personality types ( see the Myers Briggs test). What about the other types that Midtowner mentioned that are quick with their hands and don't want to spend 4 years learning how to do something when they learn by doing it? About 40% of our population falls into this personality type. They are left with domestic low-paying service based jobs. We put a lot of hope in the Biotech sector for our domestic manufacturing- yet these positions require extensive post-college training and education and are extremely competitive. Education may be the answer but not in it's current form.

I have enjoyed this thoughtful thread.

Roger Hemingway said...

Midtowner, Aaron ...

And now you've tossed me into the brier patch of a discussion of this country's fetish for and over-reliance upon certifying and licensing. Why does someone with a talent for engaging kids, earning their respect, explaining concepts in easy-to-understand language, for insipring them to learn ... why does that person need to have 148 hours (or whatever) of college credit? The same argument can be made for other areas (nursing, HVAC, plumbing, electrical), where some rigorous education is absolutely necessary but where apprenticing and on-the-job training would serve as much better preparation for a career. In a place like Memphis, where in the 1960s more than 60 percent of black families lived in poverty, those barriers to entering professions effectively serve to create a permanent caste system; I'm convinced there are people who would be great teachers and amazing nurses who instead are cleaning houses or throwing packages at FedEx. Instead, we get "certified" professionals good at book-learning who are often ill-suited to their jobs but stuck because they invested 5 or 6 years of their lives and tens of thousands of dollars into it.

All that said, it's important to remember that right now the unemployment rate for people with college degrees is less than 5 percent and for those without HS degrees is 18 percent.

One more point -- wealthy folks are a loooooong way from agreeing to the sorts of things that could really make a difference in education beyond the easily-delegated "raise the standards" and "kill the teacher union" approach (to name just two: more taxes so we can get good meals to poor kids and elimination of summer vacation http://correspondents.theatlantic.com/conor_clarke/2009/06/why_we_should_get_rid_of_summer_vacation.php).

Also ... check out this Newsweek post provocatively titled: "How We Overvalue Education"


"Meanwhile, there are 'good' public schools in wealthier neighborhoods where the main difference is just that the kids come to school with a full stomach and their parents read to them before they go to bed at night. Then there are all the private schools where some of the teachers are (unofficially) tenured and are pretty unimpressive, but the students tend to turn out (usually) OK. On the other hand, students who come to school poorly rested from a night in a homeless shelter, malnourished, or with untreated illnesses tend to do poorly. All the charter schools in the world can't solve those problems."

Anonymous said...

Working in the homes of poverty Memphis has brought a certain perspective to me. It is a cultural problem. People that are raised with the fact that they don't have to try hard... to be able to stay home from work and receive money... start having kids and don't get married. The more kids you have, the more money you get. You receive more money if you are not married. Sad but true. The more people you can get out of that culture, the better.

Anonymous said...

>>>It is a cultural problem.

That right there says it all. More and more government programs aren't going to change that one simple fact. Individuals have escaped the same poverty; entire groups or ethnicities have escaped the same type of poverty. Making the opportunities available is about the most the government can do. Memphis city schools spend substantially more per pupil than county schools. If more spending were the solution, Memphis city schools, and students, would already be superior.

Roger Hemingway said...

"... they don't have to try hard ..."

Like I said, the plantation mentality persists in Memphis.

Run over to, oh, Carver High or Mitchell and tell me how many good jobs are within a 2-mile radius. Try? Granted, many individuals need to take more responsibility, but as long as the greater sum of this community chooses to bury heads in the sand and outsource communal responsibility, it'll keep on keeping on.

As for spending per pupil, give me a break. Is that David Pickler posting here? Median income in MCS is around $35,000 per household. Median income in Shelby County Schools is around $80,000 per household. If you swapped teachers and administrators from SCS to MCS and MCS to SCS ... you'd get about the same results.

Zippy the giver said...

Anon 1:14, that's the recipe that caused this disaster.
I read it all, as I always do out of respect for each poster, and you have all missed the point. Dr. Maia was closest to the core issue.
The core issue is that everyone thinks they know why, and the ones who want to study it to death can't interpret the data.
Then there's the "it oughta be's" but that's completely out of touch,
"Pay the parents?" not on this planet,
"Let the defacto-mayor figure a way to rip off the community again with yet another no accountability plan" NO THANKS,
Roger and SCM are right about nutrition making a diff, but, it's no panacea,
The "white plantation mentality" being removed will be replaced with the "black plantation mentality" and nothing will change so that ain't it either,
Aaron, people who have all the stuff in place to be able, alert, receptive, to opportunities to get quality education regardless can easily score well on the Meyers Briggs test, the problem is why the majority of Memphis citizens are in an economic of depression even in a good economy,
Roger, the meal isn't the only thing they're missing out on, most are missing out on one parent, and all are missing out on have a "fully functioning adult" in the house at all, when the crap hits the fan people do what they know and in poverty areas, that means high drama, desperation, and sometimes violence.
Look at the person who belt whipped their two year old and even his wife thought it was normal, did you know that is one of the biggest reasons kids die at the age of two, inappropriate potty training, that's no joke.
In THIS country, entire groups of people have NOT escaped what's going on here. Saying they have does not make it so, and you're right that after a few generations the problem becomes cultural, we have that, but, it's not intentional a means to an ends for the victims in this cycle,
NO OTHER ALTERNATIVE and NO OTHER TRAINING is provided for the and NO SUPPORT that addresses it is available.
So we objectify, vilify, and ostracize them and do nothing but study them. We've used them for plans to line politician's pockets.
Why do Memphians over-stress a degree, because they have been taught to by the masters of the bubble economy started during the industrial revolution, adding 3 x the workforce (via equal rights and suffrage) without an economy that could ever handle it and no titration of pay to accommodate (face it, the money pile to pay from was the same size, instead of recalculating, we just made a bubble with aggressive sales tactics).
You have to have a memory, know what's going on, and stats that are meaningful to be effective against this problem.
You can't do it without them all.
If you really want to know how to address this, move to a poverty stricken area, live there for three years or more, put your kids in the local public school, and if you get involved this way, you will know exactly WHY things are still this way and what to do to be effective against it.
I did it.
Some people brag to me that they bring millions of dollars to the table via grants etc, but, here we are and nothing is solved.
The bad news is your best friend, gather evidence that the bad news about us is true and you'll know why and what to do. If you keep trying to not let what is be what it is it will be like an invisible 800 lb gorilla ripping your face off and beating your butt down the street with it every day, while outsiders stare in amazement that you can't see your own problem.
You don't want to see your self the way you'd like to see yourself, you want to see what ONLY others can see about you, be with that, then be effective.

Midtowner said...

Roger, I don't mind private certifications. What I do mind is mandatory gov't licensing. Years ago, I got a certification in computer repair to make myself more employable. It's not a guarantee of competence, just a certification of basic knowledge.

Having said all of that, a certified welder (depending on the certification) can make beaucoup money!

Licensing, on the other hand, is just a way of limiting newcomers into a trade.

For instance, the requirement that passed a couple of years ago for the licensing of home inspectors. I've had years of renovation experience and could probably spot more flaw and problems than most licensed inspectors. Yet I would now need to work under a licensed inspector for two years to get my own license for almost nothing.

As for feeding kids breakfast and lunch at school, I don't have a big problem with that as long as the whole process (such as cost-benefit analyses) is transparent and open to debate and scrutiny. I know it is difficult to focus when you're tired and hungry ... been there and done that. But remember, there ain't no such thing as a free lunch (or breakfast).

Anyway, I see my three suggestions as a way of reducing the growth of the welfare-poverty culture which is essential in getting us off this merry-go-round.

Posted Friday, 13 Nov 09

Anonymous said...

>>>As for spending per pupil, give me a break. Is that David Pickler posting here? Median income in MCS is around $35,000 per household. Median income in Shelby County Schools is around $80,000 per household. If you swapped teachers and administrators from SCS to MCS and MCS to SCS ... you'd get about the same results.

Well thanks Roger. Now that you've settled the price of eggs in China, you confirmed the statement exactly: we'll get exactly the same results from city students no matter the resources given them. That is because of culture. To see changes in educational results for many Memphis city school students, the culture at home must change. All the government programs in the world aren't going to change the results, just as Shelby County administration of city schools wouldn't change it.

Zippy the giver said...

Very telling about this blog.

Smart City Consulting said...


We've written extensively about changing the culture, so we didn't see the need to recap it all.

Midtowner said...


I think my incentive plan might affect the welfare-poverty culture and certainly should reduce the welfare-poverty culture.

16 Nov 09

Zippy the giver said...

I don't think it's feasable, and it's not going to address the core issue.

Tom, I know you have, but, no one has put their feet on the ground to change it because it's still exactly as it was.

Zippy the giver said...

We used to say "it's kids having babies", well, those babies grew up and had kids, their kids had kids while they were still kids, just like mom and dad, their kids had kids while they were kids too.
What you have HERE is a cultivated culture with little education. A CULTIVATED condition, and a CULTURE as a response, designed to be exactly what it is, uneducated and not mentally lature in any area, including and especially conflict resolution and education, coupled.
Without those two things they will FOREVER BE THE SLAVES OF THE PAST.
It's a condition, with elements of institutionalized slavery handed down as a system, as taught by the past, economic slavery as a developed condition as the main effect, and the condition is called CULTIVATED SLAVERY.
In Memphis, all you had to do was live in a poor neighborhood to get your taste and going to a public school and many churches, the instruments of it's administration IN MEMPHIS, your chances of catching the disease were greatly increased.
This is just now beginning to go away.

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