Education Commentary

Re-Creating a School System

By Gerry House — April 05, 2000 10 min read
The devil is in the details.

The goal in school reform is fairly simple—to replicate, school by school, classroom by classroom, those qualities that have always driven the highest-performing schools and classrooms. The devil, as usual, is in the details. Guaranteeing that the system of beliefs, behaviors, policies, and practices that ensures the intricate and complex organizational and human connections necessary for systemic school reform is made and maintained is messy, difficult, and extremely complicated.

Systemic, whole-school reform is not a sprint. It is a marathon that requires the stamina and heart of the best long-distance runners. The Memphis City Schools began the race in 1992, when we asked ourselves a question: What will it cost if we wait to reform our schools? The answer was that it would cost too much. We had no choice. Either we re-created ourselves and our schools into what they had to be to save our children, or we doomed increasing numbers of them to lives of not-so-quiet desperation.

The past eight years have been exciting, turbulent, full of hard work, often frustrating, but ultimately rewarding. Memphis still has a long way to go and lasting improvement takes time, but there are clear signs of progress. The dropout rate has declined; attendance has improved; schools are safer; and there have been modest gains in student achievement. We think that we have learned some lessons that are relevant to other schools and districts thinking about taking up whole-school reform.

Memphis is a large urban district with 118,000 students, 87 percent of whom are African-American, and 71 percent of whom qualify for free or reduced-price meals. Many of them live in communities where the only institutions are check-cashing places and liquor stores. Too many graduate without having attained the level of knowledge and skills necessary to succeed in a technology-driven economy.

To make reform real, we had to visualize student-centered schools, design the infrastructure to support them, and persevere until the vision had been transformed into reality for every child. First, we created a decentralized system that allowed decisions to be made as close to the students as possible and that placed resources and accountability at the school level. Collegial clusters of principals, school-based decisionmaking, school leadership councils, school improvement plans, and school-based budgeting are components of this school-focused infrastructure.

Next, a steering committee of business leaders, higher education professionals, parents, civic leaders, service providers, and district staff members involved the community in the development of lifelong-learning standards grouped into four categories: communication, productivity, reasoning, and civic/cultural knowledge. These lifelong-learning standards served as the basis for content standards in the core academic subjects, including the arts.

To ensure the implementation of standards-driven instruction in every classroom, 160 of our 164 schools (four schools were annexed into the district last summer) have each selected one of 18 redesign models as their blueprints for total school reform. We selected design-based school reform as our method of elevating and accelerating standards-based instruction for all students because each of the designs provides a structure and process for schools to address improvement in all areas: curriculum and instruction, professional development, climate, planning, and parent and community involvement.

We knew that we could no longer tinker around the edges of change.

We knew that we could no longer tinker around the edges of change. We had to create a map that would guide whole systems of people to make the quantum leap necessary to turn all schools into student-centered, results-based learning environments where high achievement is the norm, regardless of race, ethnicity, or socioeconomic status. School-redesign models provide these maps for Memphis’ schools.

Eight of the redesign models used in Memphis originated through New American Schools. Others are nationally tested models such as Paideia and Accelerated Schools, and a few are models created by individual schools. A majority of the elementary schools opted for Roots and Wings, a redesign model that builds on the highly structured Success for All reading program and incorporates science, history, and mathematics. Finding models for whole-school reform at the secondary level was more difficult. High Schools That Work, an initiative that combines high academic standards with a career vocational focus, is the redesign model selected by 16 of our 29 high schools.

Thirty schools began implementation in 1995, another 30 in 1996, and the last group of 104 began implementation in 1998. In May 1997, three years into the use of redesign models, researchers from the University of Memphis and Johns Hopkins University released a report examining achievement data for 25 elementary schools that were among the first schools to adopt a design. The results were encouraging. Using standard Tennessee test instruments, they found that students in the redesigned schools had made gains over the three-year period that surpassed national average gains, and that were significantly greater than those of students in other Memphis elementary schools and in a control group of matched schools.

Every school system must, to some extent, draw its own map through this challenging new terrain called whole-school reform. However, we have learned some lessons on our journey. Perhaps others will find the following helpful:

  • Professional development is critical. Students cannot learn at higher levels unless a significant investment is made in the adults who teach them. We were asking teachers and administrators to do things they never had to do before, and many were not comfortable with their new roles. Training them for new tasks had to be extensive, high-quality, and ongoing, and it had to be carried out in a professional environment.

In 1996, we opened a new Teaching and Learning Academy to provide professional development linked to whole-school change. The academy, located in a former business college, is an adult-learning place where teachers can come to work with a coach or in a small group to refresh their skills and rethink how to operate in the new environment. The facility has technology labs, and care is taken to assure that professional development is closely aligned with the specific curriculum teachers are using. We also learned that follow-up is important. Coaches and facilitators are needed for teachers once they leave the formal professional-development program.

  • The model and the school culture must be a good match. Whole-school design is suitable for every school; however, it is important to match designs with the beliefs, values, and practices of particular schools and to take into consideration a school’s previous experience with reform. The curriculum of Roots and Wings, for example, is highly prescribed and best suited to teachers willing to work within such constraints. The Accelerated Schools model is more appropriate for teachers who place high value on building a strong school community.

It is also important to tailor professional development to particular designs. The Success for All schools have a balanced literacy program that includes instruction for teachers in how to implement it, but other models do not. The Voices of Love and Freedom design initially involved heavy reading, but it does not include a piece on how to teach nonreaders. It was important to find a way of building such instruction into the program.

  • The importance of benchmarks. Most of the administrators and teachers charged with implementing the new designs were operating in unfamiliar territory. They were not familiar with the new forms of pedagogy and assessment or accustomed to working in teams, and they were not sure how to evaluate their progress. This was particularly true of the original schools, which could not draw on schools that had already gone down the same reform path.

We worked with New American Schools and the Success for All Foundation at Johns Hopkins University to identify benchmarks that schools can use to navigate the reform process. Outside teams visit schools three or four times a year to monitor progress and to provide feedback.

  • Strong partnership with the teachers’ union. Implementation of a whole-school design makes heavy demands on teachers, so it is important to keep the interests of teachers in mind in all decisions. When complaints arose that faculty meetings were too long or that there were too many committees, it was important to know about them. Moreover, many provisions of teacher contracts, such as working conditions, could inhibit the introduction of new designs. For all of these reasons, it was important to form close working ties with the teachers’ union.

We had the local affiliate of the National Education Association at the table throughout the process. The union agreed to an addendum to the teachers’ contract that makes it easier for schools to adopt a design, and that laid out procedures for dealing with teachers who did not feel comfortable with a particular design. There was never an argument over paying teachers for extra time. We said from the outset that if the designs required teachers to undergo a week of training, then we would pay them.

  • Schools need both autonomy and support. The district has traditionally operated with a centralized governance system, but whole-school reform models demand that schools be given more control over their budgets and a greater voice in making decisions about what is best for them. Through their leadership councils, schools were able not only to select the design model best suited for them but also to institute new policies, such as allowing teachers to stay with the same group of students for more than one year.

A decentralized system, however, still requires support from the center, and such support is one thing that cannot be delegated. To improve communication between schools and the central office, we eliminated several layers of bureaucracy and then divided the district into 12 clusters, each with a lead principal. In addition, a central-staff office facilitator was assigned to each design team, and we worked hard to make sure that central-staff members understood that their primary job was to support the work of schools.

  • Technology is a critical component. Any districtwide school reform plan today must take account of the impact that new information technologies will inevitably have on schooling. Some of the new school designs involve substantial commitments to technology, and providing such equipment has been a major challenge. This is an area in which progress has been slower than we would have liked.

Thanks to a $1.5 million grant from a local foundation, we are now building a new telecommunications center that will make it possible to carry out professional development through distance learning. The center will also make it possible to offer some courses to students in schools that might not have sufficient students to fill a class.

  • Parent and community support are key. It almost goes without saying that no reform plan as ambitious as that of Memphis can succeed without broad community support. Every step we took and every major decision we made had community and parental input, from the initial standards-setting to the setting up of school leadership councils with parents, teachers, and community representatives as members.

Our children are not born failures. It is our schools that too often have failed them.

Support from the business community was particularly important—and not very difficult to obtain. Memphis business leaders understand the importance of schooling for the emerging economy. They provided tutors for many Roots and Wings schools, and raised the $1.5 million needed to renovate the facility for the Teaching & Learning Academy. For the past two years, we have had a program by which local chief executives become the principal of a school for a day. They come away with much more positive perceptions of schools, including insights into how hard teachers work. We continue to work hard to nurture these relationships.

Our children are not born failures. It is our schools that have too often failed them. This cycle of failure must be broken, and it must be broken now. School reform is not nearly so much a way of doing as it is a process of becoming. That is what has taken place in Memphis. We are becoming the type of educators who have the vision, the skill, and the will to re-create schools into student-centered, stimulating learning environments that prepare all young people to live successful, productive lives in the 21st century.

Gerry House, the superintendent of schools in Memphis, Tenn., is a 1999 recipient of the Harold W. McGraw Jr. Prize in Education. This month, she will become the president and chief executive officer of the Institute for Student Achievement, a non-profit organization based in Lake Success, N.Y., that works with at-risk youths.

A version of this article appeared in the April 05, 2000 edition of Education Week as Re-Creating a School System


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