Special Report
Teaching Profession

Memphis Collaboration Is Poised to Bear Fruit

By Christina A. Samuels — November 15, 2011 9 min read
Memphis kindergarten teacher Margaret Box works with children in her class. A veteran of 36 years in the district, Ms. Box says she was at first skeptical that teachers and district officials could work together in building a teacher-evaluation system, but she has since come to believe in the work.
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Just three years ago, the relationship between the Memphis school district in Tennessee and its teachers’ union was fairly typical: The two entities worked together during contract negotiations, and while there were no spectacular disagreements, there weren’t any major partnerships, either.

Much has changed since that time.

Now, both sides are working hand in hand on a basketful of initiatives that have shaken up the way the district evaluates, pays, and supports its teaching force. And the district is doing this work while navigating a structural change that will eventually consolidate the city district with the neighboring county school district by 2013.

The ongoing transformation of the working relationship between the district and its teachers’ union is being enabled through a $90 million, seven-year Intensive Partnerships for Effective Teaching grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, of Seattle. In 2009, the foundation selected Memphis, along with districts in Hillsborough County, Fla., Pittsburgh, and a coalition of five Los Angeles-based charter school networks, for grants intended to study, define, and promote effective teaching. But there was a catch: The district and the union had to promise a level of collaboration that had not been seen before in the 109,000-student school system.

As one product of the new collaboration, a committee of Memphis teachers and district officials working together tossed out the system’s old, vague teacher-evaluation process that required only one classroom observation every five years. Starting this school year, all teachers will now be evaluated annually under a set of concrete guidelines and on the performance of their students on state tests.

The district and the union are also working on a new mentorship program for novices and those teachers who need extra help. And teachers and district officials are diving into the work of establishing a new salary schedule that will do away with the standard salary scales and reward “master teachers” with six-figure salaries.

Call it collaboration on steroids.

In Tennessee, where the state legislature voted in May to eliminate the power of teachers’ unions to bargain collectively, both sides say that working together is good management.

“We had to come to the realization that we would be at the table or on the menu,” said Keith Williams, the president of the 5,500-member Memphis Education Association, an affiliate of the National Education Association. “So, we figured we’d be at the table.”

From the district’s perspective, Tequilla Banks, the executive director of Memphis’ teacher-effectiveness initiative, agreed that the union’s involvement has smoothed the path for the new projects. “You want the union to give feedback, but at the same time, the accountability rests with the district,” Ms. Banks said. “But [the union] has not been resistant to the changes. They’re trying to help with potential roadblocks before we get there.”

Michael Copland, a senior program officer with the Gates Foundation who has been working with all the grant-supported districts, said the district “is a complicated place, and it has been more complicated of late with the consolidation on the horizon. Memphis has done really excellent work to move as fast as anyone we’re working with.”

Enticing Idea

Memphis’ drive toward collaboration began soon after Superintendent Kriner Cash was hired to lead the district in summer 2008. The following spring, he got a letter from the Gates Foundation asking if Memphis would like to be considered for a grant to improve teacher effectiveness. (The foundation also provides operating support to Editorial Projects in Education, which publishes Education Week.)

The letter gave no promise of money, or even a commitment that Memphis would be among the finalists. “It could have gone into a circular file,” Mr. Cash said in an interview. But the idea of doing transformative work in the district was enticing to him and other top district officials.

Over his career in education, Mr. Cash said, “the last, but most important, front I had not tackled was my teaching corps.” He came to Tennessee’s largest school district after serving as the chief of accountability and systemwide performance in the Miami-Dade County, Fla., district.

From his perspective, “nothing had really changed in Memphis over many years. We had a relationship, but no real appetite for change.”

By most measures, Memphis is facing academic challenges. Only 41 percent of its nearly 190 schools are in good standing based on Tennessee standards, and the graduation rate hovers around 70 percent. According to a fact sheet from the Gates Foundation, only 6 percent of all Memphis students who take the ACT, a college-entrance exam, meet the test’s “college-ready” benchmarks in all four subject areas.

Memphis’ student enrollment is about 86 percent African-American, 7 percent white, and 6 percent Hispanic, with the remaining subgroup made up of Asian or Native American students. About 87 percent of its students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch, a common yardstick for student poverty.

The district has also struggled to hold on to its teaching force. Nearly 20 percent of teachers leave after their first year, and more than 40 percent leave within three years, according to Gates.

Community Support

Under the terms of the grant, the community also had to embrace the program, and in Memphis, local philanthropic groups quickly pledged $21 million to the school improvement effort. “We thought this was a great opportunity to push things over the edge,” said Terence Patterson, the program officer for education for the Memphis-based Hyde Foundation, which has supported education programs in the city for decades.

“They’ve done by far the best job of any of our sites in leveraging the local philanthropy community,” said Mr. Copland, the Gates senior program officer.

But the initiative was not embraced immediately by all the union members.

“I was one of the strongest opponents,” said Mr. Williams, the current union president. “I saw it as lending itself more to private enterprise rather than to public education.”

High school science teacher Stephanie Fitzgerald, the immediate past president of the MEA and a chairwoman of one of the initiative’s working committees, said she faced immediate pushback from other teachers. “People said, working with Bill Gates, you’re working with the devil,” she said. “But we want to have a little more control over our fate.”

In at least one area, the collaborative work being done under the Memphis grant helped the district and the union be in front of changes brewing at the state level that were aimed at requiring districts to toughen requirements for teacher evaluations. Around the same time that Memphis was laying the groundwork for the Gates Foundation grant, Tennessee was preparing its application for the $4 billion federal Race to the Top competition.

As part of its winning $500 million grant proposal, the state decided to give more weight to its Tennessee Value-Added Assessment System in determining whether a teacher should receive tenure. Under state law, 35 percent of a teacher’s evaluation now relies on that measure, known as TVAAS; 15 percent on other measures of student achievement; and 50 percent on observations of classroom practice.

In March of this year, state lawmakers also voted to extend the probationary period for new teachers from three to five years.

Because Memphis was already working on its own teacher-effectiveness process, the district was able to get an evaluation model approved by the state that the city’s teachers played a strong role in creating.

The TVAAS and other measures of student achievement remain a factor for teacher tenure in Memphis, with 35 percent alloted for TVAAS scores and 15 percent for other measures. However, the district’s teachers have played a major role in developing a classroom-observation process that will account for 40 percent of the evaluation. Five percent of Memphis teachers’ evaluations will be based on their content knowledge, and the remaining 5 percent is based on a “stakeholder perception” survey.

The district and the union agreed that the measures for teacher improvement should be specific, and offer a clear path for growth. Seasoned teachers will be observed at least four times a year for 15 minutes at each session, and new teachers will be observed and evaluated six times a year.

“I think we have been integrally involved in where the rubber meets the road, on implementation,” said Margaret Box, a kindergarten teacher serving on the teacher-evaluation committee.

Responding to Input

She said the union’s input was instrumental, for example, in softening language in the evaluation instrument that suggested principals must “always” see every single standard at each 15-minute observation session. Depending on what the students are doing, principals might not see every single measure in a single visit, the teacher committee members argued.

The committee is also working on a method for teachers to correct mistakes that the observer may make when watching the class. Right now, there’s no way for a teacher to challenge a classroom observation. “I do think they’re listening to us,” Ms. Box said.

Mr. Williams, the union president, said the teacher involvement early on in the evaluation process made it easier to sell to teachers. “We had a committee of teachers in place, and they had a very strong hand in forming and adapting our evaluation tool,” he said. “It’s very difficult to disagree when your teachers are in charge of it.” Ultimately, the teachers working with the district said they’ve come up with an evaluation instrument that their colleagues see as fair. Still, all these changes have come with some anxiety. Ms. Box, with 36 years of experience in Memphis, said she was skeptical of the initiative at first, but has grown to believe in the work. Less-experienced teachers are still worried.

“People need to feel a comfort level that they’re going to be supported. They want to improve,” she said. “They don’t want to feel like this is a ‘gotcha.’”

Mr. Williams said that, from his initial opposition, he now sees the process as having “promise,” but “I have not yet seen its effectiveness on children.”

Push from the State

The union’s dismay over actions taken at the state level to whittle away at traditional collective bargaining and evaluation procedures has made working together easier at the district level, said Mr. Cash, the superintendent. He has tried to walk a middle path between the union and the state legislature.

One challenge unique to Memphis as it continues this work is that the city school district will surrender its charter to the much smaller suburban Shelby County district, which surrounds Memphis. When the consolidation occurs in the 2013-14 school year, one district will serve both county and city residents. And all the work that Memphis is undertaking to improve its teaching corps may have to be revamped when the two districts become one.

Mr. Copland, with the Gates Foundation, said he looks at the consolidation as a positive.

“It just was an opportunity for us to say we’re not going away. We’re supporting the work,” he said. “The foundation is really taking the tack with these large investments over many years to recognize that reform is messy work and there’s a lot of unanticipated things that happen.”

He added, “It’s not about having a model. It’s about trying to be nimble and flexible and keeping your eye on the ultimate goal.”

Special coverage of district and high school reform and its impact on student opportunities for success is supported in part by a grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York.
A version of this article appeared in the November 16, 2011 edition of Education Week as Getting Along in Memphis

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