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VOL. 8 | NO. 39 | Saturday, September 19, 2015

NCRM Highlights Teacher Effectiveness Initiative

By Bill Dries

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It’s not the kind of history you normally see at the National Civil Rights Museum, even with the museum’s 2014 technological update and expanded exhibits.

A temporary exhibit on display through Oct. 4 reviews Shelby County Schools’ historic shift in teacher effectiveness training that began in 2009.

What started as the Teacher Effectiveness Initiative is now the Teacher and Leader Effectiveness program.

A temporary exhibit at the National Civil Rights Museum explores the six-year-old Teacher Effectiveness Initiative that has changed classrooms in Shelby County Schools.

(Bob Bayne)

The change in how teachers are hired and evaluated as well as their day-to-day classroom interaction with students came just ahead of other historic revisions at the state level, which included the merger – and subsequent demerger – of public education in Shelby County.

The exhibit is old school by NCRM standards. It showcases charts and graphics that measure student and teacher performance over the last six years. It also gauges what the goals were then compared to what they are now.

Most compelling are the videos of teachers and their students. The teachers talk about how the new standards and goals have changed classrooms in a relatively short span of time.

Anita Long, a 15-year mathematics teacher at Ridgeway Middle School, talks of reading the faces of her students to tell if she is getting through to them and then shifting strategies if she isn’t. She talks of working to keep the attention of individual students.

Shelby County Schools superintendent Dorsey Hopson said the exhibit was the idea of museum director Terri Lee Freeman, who saw a briefing on the program.

“I think that as a school district we’ve done a poor job of communicating the powerful impact this work is having on student achievement,” Hopson said. “I don’t think people understand how powerful and effective it’s been.”

The TLE program is in the last year of a $90 million grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which attempted to quantify the effectiveness of teachers in a more objective way.

“Once the grant dries up, we’re going to have to be very intentional about areas that we ask the board to invest in,” Hopson said. “You would need to invest somewhere around $10 million every year based on Gates funding that goes away. But many of the things that led to results – we’re still going to need to invest in.”

And the changes have become part of SCS’ mainstream.

“Some of the strategies have worked better than others,” Hopson said.

Changes in how schools are staffed with the consent of principals and teachers involved as well as an earlier hiring process are innovations that he says have worked.

The application to the Gates Foundation was the first in a wave of reforms to local and state public education standards. Kriner Cash introduced it shortly after he took the reins of what was then Memphis City Schools in 2008.

Cash thought the school system was losing out on the best teachers because its hiring period occurred after the legacy Shelby County Schools system and those systems in North Mississippi. He also believed the teacher pipeline was too insular and was weighted against those with no personal connections within MCS.

Cash left the system in 2013 on the eve of the schools merger. He recently was hired as superintendent of schools in Buffalo, New York. Cash feared the merger and particularly the politics behind it might derail the teacher effectiveness work.

“Dr. Cash deserves a lot of credit not just for this work,” said Hopson, who was hired by Cash in 2008 to be general counsel for MCS.

Hopson pointed out that Memphis’ teacher effectiveness plan was the model for Tennessee’s application for federal Race To The Top funding.

“If you think about what the evaluation process was like before, it was inconsistent and it wasn’t objective always,” said Shelby County Schools board member Chris Caldwell, who was elected to the board two years into the initiative. “Then when you start talking about tracking the progress and starting to have interventions toward that and having data in a timely way, I think it’s a game changer.”

Teachers were beginning to move away from lecturing or teaching an entire class of students at desks all at the same time to a small-group or individual-attention model. The shift allowed the ability to intervene immediately with students who were falling behind.

Today teachers frequently open a class session with a quiz to assess where students are. Technology has played a role too with laptops and tablets allowing teachers to more quickly grade quizzes and tests and base their interventions on those marks.

In one of the videos, Renata McNeal, a teacher at Cherokee Elementary School, talks of moving away from lecturing as she introduces long division to young minds easily distracted in a group setting.

A student of hers, Jasmine Cox, talks of the individual attention she got from McNeal about long division, as well as her battle with the decidedly non-mathematical challenge of shyness.

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