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VOL. 124 | NO. 205 | Monday, October 19, 2009

Internal Affair

The Mechanics of Picking Better Teachers

By Bill Dries

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One in five of the Memphis school system’s new teachers quits after a year in the classroom. After three years, 40 percent of the new hires are gone. For those who do hang around, the process of becoming – and remaining – a teacher is the story of a system within the school system.

But Memphis City Schools Supt. Kriner Cash is challenging the direction of the teacher pipeline in a way that has the complete attention of teachers across the city.

It also has the attention of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in Seattle.

The city school system is seeking $99.6 million from the foundation of the Microsoft founder and his wife, which, if awarded, will be administered through a local nonprofit education foundation. That would be matched with $20 million from local private and business sources and $35 million to $40 million in school system funding.

“The achievement gap in America is real. It is affecting far too many of our young people and our children,” Cash said in August when the Memphis proposal made the top five list of finalists for the funding. “However, it can be closed without sacrificing the performance of the top performers. … This proposal focuses on supporting teachers.”

All of the funding would be over a five- to seven-year period. The precise time span and specific sollar amounts for the effor are still being discussed. The process includes discussions about how the school system will find the money to sustain the effort after the Gates Foundation is no longer involved.

The hard stuff

As the school system waits for final word on the grant, which should come by Thanksgiving, Cash has already rolled out other reforms, including a controversial and recently amended policy of not failing students through the third grade. There’s also a widely applauded move to teacher “looping” – having a teacher move with the same group of pupils as they advance to the next grade during the primary years.

And new and much tougher state standards are coming under the banner of the Tennessee Diploma Project. They will replace standards allowing a student to be declared proficient in algebra after getting less than half of the questions correct on the state test.

The school system now evaluates how effective a teacher is through two methods. The first is value added data programs that follow student test scores over several years and link student achievement to a specific teacher. The other method is principals watching teachers at work in their classrooms.

“The tools and processes that support these observations are limited, and our evaluation process is compliance-driven at best and punitive at worst,” reads the school system’s proposal to the Gates Foundation.

In focus groups, teachers complained that such observations were “largely ineffective and that many principals lack the capacity to utilize it fairly and consistently.”

For those who stay with the school system past three years, tenure is a formality with ineffective teachers kept and simply transferred from school to school. The proposal is a bluntly worded assessment of the current process used to hire and retain teachers.

The proposed reform plan would replace that with a four-part system in an ambitious rerouting of the traditional pipeline of teachers to the classrooms across the city.

The school system would create a “teacher effectiveness measure” (TEM) to chart growth in student learning, judge teacher knowledge and observe teacher practices in a more objective way from several sources.

“We will make smarter decisions about who teaches our students,” the proposal reads. The plan is so ambitious that evaluators at the Gates Foundation said it would probably take seven years instead of five.

Memphis City Schools teacher Sylvia Shannon reviews a reading comprehension test with third grader Keron Sykes at Gardenview Elemetary School. -- LANCE MURPHEY

“Memphis won’t have the grant until that process is over,” said Chris Williams, a spokesman for the foundation. He declined to comment on the Memphis proposal.

When the foundation announced in August that Memphis made the list of five finalists, Cash said he believed all of them would probably get at least some of the funding.

“It’s ours to lose. We’re going to have to really mess something up. We are going to have to fall in the Mississippi (River). … for us not to get this,” Cash told reporters. “… Bill and Melinda make the ultimate decision. … We think they are going to recommend all five of these districts. That’s our sense.”

However, the review process for the grant is rigorous.

“It cannot be mingled with other dollars and other funds,” Cash said. “We had to pass a very rigorous fiscal agent test in order for them to even begin to consider us.”

The foundation is not new to education reform and specifically teacher training pilot projects.

“In some districts, we got tacit agreement to move forward, but then the schools weren’t willing to do the hard things – like removing ineffective staff or significantly increasing the rigor of the curriculum,” Bill Gates said at an education forum in November 2008. “We’re not the first people to focus on effective teaching to improve education. We’re not even the first people in this room. A growing body of evidence tells us that teacher effectiveness is the single most important factor in student achievement.”

The foundation may have been convinced that Cash means business because of his decision to remove 30 “low-performing” principals after the 2008-2009 school year ended.

“MCS does not back away from making difficult decisions regarding principal leadership,” the school system’s proposal reads. “Holding principals accountable for the retention rates of effective teachers will motivate principals to address issues which are of greatest importance to their effective teachers.”

In the lead

The relationship between teachers and principals is key, said Stephanie Fitzgerald, a 35-year classroom veteran and president of the Memphis Education Association, the union representing most of the system’s teachers.

“If a principal recommends you for non-rehire in your first three years, that’s it,” she said. “There are cases, and we know of cases, where there’s been a personality conflict and a teacher has been non-re-elected and the principal didn’t have to give any documentation as to why he non-re-elected that person. It was strictly his version.”

That would change in the reform proposal.

Teacher recruiting would be outsourced to The New Teacher Project, a 12-year-old national nonprofit group with teacher evaluation and training programs in 28 states. It was co-founded by Michelle Rhee, the superintendent of the Washington, D.C., school system. And principals would get more training from the existing Urban Education Center.

Teach for America, a national nonprofit organization, has been sending college graduates to Memphis – what the program refers to as “core members” – since 2006. They teach for two years in low-performing schools. There are 100 in the Memphis school system and 50 alumni, including three who have become leaders in the school system.

“One of the long-term benefits is … on the front end of their commitment, only 8 percent of our core members say they are going to stay in education beyond their two years,” said Bradley Leon, executive director of Teach For America Tennesseee. “But two-thirds of our alumni are working full time in education. These are people who thought they were going to Harvard Law School or were going to go to work for Goldman Sachs. … We’re actively changing the career trajectories of some of our nation’s most outstanding leaders.”

The Memphis proposal says the Teach for America teachers help improve student achievement. But it also recommends isolating the teachers less and having them work in larger clusters, perhaps centered on fewer schools. Leon said he’s talked with Cash about that idea and both agree on the goal.

Universal challenge

The school system’s Human Resources department would also be ramped up in the reform push. Fitzgerald said MCS HR hasn’t been doing exit interviews with teachers leaving the school system, which might help in spotlighting mismatches of talented educators and talented principals.

Dr. Talana Vogel, graduate programs director at Christian Brothers University, said national studies confirm “working conditions,” including conflicts with principals, are among the most frequent reasons teachers give for leaving.

“Gone is the day that teachers can go in the classroom and shut the door and be on their own and make it happen,” Vogel said. “There has to be collaboration and community built into schools to foster effective teaching. That requires very, very skilled leadership on the principals’ part.”

Vogel served on the advisory board that helped put together the proposal to the Gates Foundation. She has examined the loss of potentially good teachers before they were ever hired.

Memphis City Schools Supt. Kriner Cash reads to Gardenview Elementary School students at a recent “Read for the Record” program. -- LANCE MURPHEY

Like the problems retaining teachers during their first three years on the job, Vogel said the problems in drawing the best teachers are a common problem for urban school districts and not unique to Memphis. Many of the districts, including Memphis, tend to hire teachers just before school year begins – around July, in the case of the Memphis school system.

“If Shelby County (schools) had a student-teacher who was particularly good, they would offer that person a contract pending their graduation the following semester,” Fitzgerald said. “They got them earlier in the pipeline.”

A massive school system job fair held just before the start of the school year is also less than inviting to some prospective teachers.

One unsuccessful applicant who talked to The Memphis News on condition of anonymity described it as a “cattle call” in which those who have been through the process before fare much better than the newcomers. She was seeking a position as an English teacher.

“If you appeal to them, they put your name on some list that principals can look at. Then the principal can call and interview you,” she said. “I never could get a person to talk to me to say, ‘What it is I did wrong?’ It was like being in a vortex – really mysterious.”

Going from table to table, she was asked the same five questions. At one table she was interviewed by a Spanish teacher.

Cash said the job fair is a “great opportunity” for the would-be teachers to look over schools and for principals to get “baseline information” on job prosects.

“However, we will be encouraging schools and candidates to make hiring a school-based event,” he said. “We want our candidates to visit schools in the process of making a highly informed commitment.”

How it’s done

Accurately measuring teacher effectiveness remains elusive, although teachers today perform in an era of federal No Child Left Behind Standards and an alphabet soup of state benchmarks and tests.

“The Gates Foundation has done two previous rounds of this that didn’t have any fantastic results,” said Fitzgerald, president of the MEA. “So, on this go-round … they stipulated that the teachers must be involved. Without the MEA involvement this grant never would have gone past the initial stages.”

The union was also instrumental in the two-tiered evaluation system that would allow teachers to stay on the traditional salary track with pay steps for experience. They would still be evaluated and subject to the same curriculum changes.

Those who choose the reform model would be evaluated more intensely, get more training and in turn receive incentive pay as they improve.

The top of the pay scale would be master teacher status, where a teacher’s annual pay could rise to between $75,000 and $100,000.

“There are a lot of things teachers could gain from this,” Fitzgerald said. “We think you ought to have that choice.”

Other educators worry about how the more aggressive pay scale will be maintained after the Gates funding runs out. Cash told The Memphis News he and his staff have made some initial projections on how many teachers might opt in, but he said it would be “premature” to discuss the number for now.

Fitzgerald said it’s too early to tell how many teachers may opt in. Still to be worked out is whether newly hired teachers can opt in to the reform model from day one.

“Nationwide there’s a lot of noise about the need for more effective teachers. What’s fascinating about it is no one has done the kind of research necessary to determine what makes an effective teacher,” she said. “Maybe one out of every 100 people who go into the teaching profession are effective from the second they walk into the room. Those are the naturals. And they are few and far between.”

With 18 first-graders at his feet in the library at Gardenview Elementary School, Cash demonstrated how much of an art teaching can be. He read “The Hungry Caterpillar” to a group of children who knew the story by heart.

At first the students were distracted by the whirs and clicks of several cameras directly behind them. Soon enough, however, Cash had their attention.

One little girl to his right wouldn’t make eye contact. Cash reached out to shake hands with her, but she still wouldn’t look at him. He asked her name and then got to the story.

When Cash said the book had been written 40 years ago, one boy offered, “My mom and dad are 40.” But the girl in braids still seemed wary. Cash kept his distance, prodding the group members equally for answers to questions about colors, numbers, what some words meant and what hungry caterpillars should eat.

By the time he got to Wednesday in the story, a key point in the caterpillar’s path to butterflydom, the girl was joining in with the other children. Cash asked how long two weeks is and with an intense look downward, she raced through the days of the week, impressing him. He called her Tamaria but a boy sitting next to her quickly corrected him, “Excuse me, sir. It’s Tanaria.”

Cash asked the students to name their favorite book and Tanaria raised her hand high, bouncing along with the other children. She proudly said her favorite book is “Animal Park.”

Changes to come

On a sunny Saturday afternoon, several dozen people, mostly adults, gathered in the auditorium of Douglass High School in North Memphis for a four-hour meeting to update teachers and parents on a broad checklist of items from H1N1 flu precautions to new state standards to the district’s no-retention policy.

A symphonic version of The Beatles “A Day In The Life” played over the school’s intercom system as teachers gathered in one part of the auditorium. A group of parents and children sat in another section, leaning in to listen to an interpreter translate the speeches into Spanish.

The teachers comprised about half the crowd and asked most of the questions after Dr. Linda Kennard, executive director of curriculum and instruction, talked about changes to come.

Effective this school year, students in pre-kindergarten through first grade get report cards without traditional letter grades. They reflect how the children are performing on specific tasks. Those students also cannot be failed or retained unless their parents insist.

“If a parent is convinced that repeating a grade will be a better educational decision for their child, we are going to follow your wishes and preferences,” Kennard said.

The city school system will phase in the same new report card system and no-fail policy with second-graders next school year and move to the third grade in the 2011-2012 school year. In later years, the plan is to fail students in grades 4-8 no more than once.

The more gradual phase-in acknowledges the controversy the no-fail part of the plan has prompted. A year after arriving in Memphis, Cash rolled out the no-fail plan as part of a larger focus on pre-K through third grade learning.

One of the first problems he identified as superintendent was the large number of overage students in the school system – 25,000. Critics of the no-fail plan argue the policy is a way of improving the numbers without fixing the problem.

But between the advocates and opponents is a skeptical middle ground that seems willing to give the policy a chance, as long as it remains wedded with Cash’s goal of having 90 percent of the school system’s fourth-graders start the year performing at grade level. The tactics include 90 minutes of reading instruction every school day.

“It’s going to take us a number of years to fully realize that. But that is our goal,” Kennard told those in the Douglass auditorium.

Some of the teachers asked about summer school for students who fall behind, which would remain in some voluntary form. But no one openly opposed the no-fail move.

“Social promotion ... does not work. But guess what? Retention doesn’t either,” Kennard said. “Time and again … children who were promoted although not having mastered everything – if you measure them against their grade-level counterpart who was retained – the children who were promoted did better.”

In this case, the students are to be watched more intensely by teachers with “interventions” during the school year.

Cash also wants to expand pre-K for the 40,000 children in Shelby County entering kindergarten without the benefit of pre-K.

Meanwhile, teachers are being surveyed for their wishes and preferences in preparation for “looping” teachers at the pre-K through third-grade levels. Looping is, for example, when a kindergarten teacher becomes a first grade teacher the next school year, moving with the students from the previous year.

Vogel did it at the University of Memphis’ Campus School and a similar school in Florida.

“You hit the ground the next year and you don’t have to spend time getting to know your kids, your parents – those relationships are already built,” she said.

Fitzgerald is a science teacher who likes experiments.

“This is like a giant research project,” she said of the Gates Foundation proposal. “It’s not a guaranteed home run. But hopefully we might get some information out of this that might help learning totally across the board.

“You keep learning how to deal with children. The children are changing and you have to change with them,” she said. “If I walked into a room today and only had the tools I had when I started teaching, they would eat me alive.”

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