Student Achievement Takes Focus as School Starts

By Bill Dries

When Shelby County public schools open Monday, Aug. 5, the leaders of the unified school district hope it will shift the civic discussion about public education in a different direction than it has taken in the last two and a half years.

“We can maybe start back talking about student achievement,” interim schools superintendent Dorsey Hopson said.

(Daily News File/Lance Murphey)

Hopson expects Monday’s opening – with three bell times among Shelby County’s 256 schools – will probably come with its share of glitches.

A transportation system that combines part of the old county schools bus fleet with a private bus contractor, all along new routes, will be watched closely for problems.

Hopson has set a goal of responding quickly when the problems arise and having them fixed permanently before Labor Day, Sept. 2.

“The conversation has to be about the kids,” he said. “We have been for two years focused on operational issues and changes and mergers and demergers and lawsuit and referendums and all that. There has not been a lot of focus on student achievement.”

That is what deputy superintendent David Stephens calls a different kind of “heavy lifting” for the school district post-merger shakedown.

“I think the part that’s exciting to us is that we have been so consumed by this merger that sometimes kids are kind of in the background,” he said. “We sit in meetings, and when do we ever do anything that’s going to impact student achievement?”

Even though it is likely schools in the six suburban towns and cities will break away from the merged school system in a year, Hopson said the next goal after getting the 2013-2014 school year started is growing student achievement and proficiency.

“We can’t afford to give the kids a year off or have them be secondary while we go through this,” he said. “They can’t get this year back.”

In the week before the first day of classes, the state of Tennessee released achievement test results by school district, including for the last school year of the separate city and county school systems.

The results showed growth in student proficiency in both school systems, except in reading proficiency for Memphis City Schools’ third- through eighth-graders, which dropped by 0.4 percent. Both school systems were rated “Level 5,” meaning the overall growth for each school system was more than state officials expected.

Hopson said he is excited about acting on the data, not over a series of school years, but with same-year intervention for students falling behind. That is a national trend in public education, a direct result of the move to get detailed data about student achievement more quickly.

The same data are also used in part to evaluate teachers by the same Level 1-5 system. Teachers rated as Level 3 are judged to be delivering a year’s worth of growth for students; those at Levels 4 and 5 are delivering more than a year’s worth of growth.

With funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and local nonprofits, Memphis City Schools began changing how teachers are evaluated for effectiveness and professional development. The Teacher Effectiveness Initiative, as it is known, continues with the consolidation. Even before the merger began July 1, the start of the new fiscal year, Shelby County Schools had signed on to the evaluation measures.

Hopson said the selection of faculties for the new school year using a “mutual consent” model, in which principals and teachers consult and agree on a teacher’s school assignment, is a “huge” change in how schools are staffed.

“You have different phases of transition work,” he said. “There’s a whole body of work that has to be done next year and beyond. We will just shift our focus from the transition piece on opening schools to harmonizing things that need to be harmonized and make other decisions.”

Stephens said the merger on opening day is a combination of the two districts with a common system to operate the two as one. But work remains to make those two systems a single, seamless unit without being able to tell what was once a part of each school system.

“It’s kind of like we’ve taken all of this clay and we’ve put it together. Now we’ve got to shape it into something,” he said. “The last part is the hardest. You can get it together, but to turn it into a beautiful vase or whatever you are trying to do, that’s going to take a lot of work. … Every day something’s coming on the radar, but we address it and move to the next thing.”