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VOL. 129 | NO. 178 | Friday, September 12, 2014

Education Secretary Calls for System-Wide Reforms

By Bill Dries

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U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan saw much that he liked in Memphis Wednesday, Sept. 10, at the end of his three-day “back to school” bus tour of schools in three states.

U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan was in Memphis this week where he spoke at a town hall event at Cornerstone Prep Elementary School.

(Daily News/Andrew J. Breig)

The last stop was Cornerstone Prep Elementary School in Binghampton.

But Duncan said he still hasn’t seen the kind of reform in finding excellent teachers and getting them to the students that need them most across any of the 15,000 school districts in America.

“The question is: How many systemically, not individually, but systemically identify their hardest-working and most committed teachers and principals and place them in the most underserved communities? The answer is, I can’t find one yet,” Duncan said at a forum in the school library. “The children who need the best generally get the least.”

Welcomed by hundreds of Cornerstone students waving red pompoms and a thundering Fairley High marching band, Duncan chose the state-run Achievement School District setting to talk about education reform across not only those schools but in Shelby County Schools’ Innovation Zone schools as well.

Earlier in the day, an assistant secretary of education visited Ford Road Elementary School in South Memphis, which is among the Innovation Zone Schools.

ASD superintendent Chris Barbic and Shelby County Schools superintendent Dorsey Hopson both participated in the forum with Duncan.

Duncan said state and federal funding, which both sets of schools have used for additional teachers and teaching assistants for rapid intervention with students who fall behind, is a “catalyst” but that overall the funding is a “small, small piece of the solution.”

He pointed to dedicated and high-performing teachers and principals in schools as a more important ingredient.

“You guys can rock this world,” said Duncan, who is a former leader of the Chicago public schools system.

“If Memphis can fundamentally break through, what kind of message does that send to the rest of the country?” he added, referring to the historically high levels of poverty, and in particular poverty among children, in the Memphis area.

Schools in the Innovation Zone and Achievement School District are in the bottom 5 percent in the state of Tennessee in terms of student achievement.

Duncan said growth in student achievement at both Cornerstone and Ford Road proves that poverty is not an insurmountable barrier in improving student achievement.

Duncan played a key role in changes to Tennessee laws to first raise and then eliminate the cap on the number of charter schools in Tennessee. The Tennessee Legislature also, during that time, allowed the use of student achievement test data as part of evaluating the performance of teachers.

Cornerstone is operated by Capstone Education Group under an agreement with the ASD. And Barbic noted that the first year at the old Lester Elementary had its challenges, from renaming the school to a new way of doing things at a failing school, plus some tweaks made as a result of the discussion that followed.

With changes at the state level, President Barack Obama made Tennessee one of the first two states in the country to receive federal funding for the reform efforts as it granted the state a waiver from George W. Bush-era No Child Left Behind standards.

In Memphis, a part of the federal funding and private funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation have fueled efforts to more objectively evaluate the performance of teachers and offer them professional assistance and a leadership path that may lead to being a principal or master teacher status with incentive pay for their performance.

But Duncan said the challenge is to scale those efforts up across a school system in a nation of 15,000 school districts.

PROPERTY SALES 23 23 1,365
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