If all goes as it hopes, the Memphis City Schools (MCS) soon will be almost $92 million richer.
MCS is supposed to hear tomorrow if it will be awarded two grants from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. One, for roughly $90 million spread over six years, would be used for the district’s new Teacher Effectiveness Initiative (commonly called the TEI). The other, for $1.9 million, would fund research into what makes a teacher “effective.”
“As far back as you want to go, parents have always known who the best teachers were at a school. Students have always known,” said MCS superintendent Kriner Cash. “For educators, it was a bit like the blind man and the elephant.”
As part of the initiative, the district plans to make “smarter decisions” about who educates its students, to better support and compensate teachers, and to change the existing culture to foster more effective teaching.
To make smarter hiring decisions, district officials say they will recruit nationally and hire teachers earlier in the year.
“Shelby County Schools offer contracts in February. We often offer ours in July, August, and in some cases, September,” said Irving Hamer, deputy superintendent of academic operations. “It doesn’t give you the opportunity to pick the people you want the most because they’ve already been hired away.”
The district also is working on a new ways to evaluate teachers including student test scores, classroom visits, and interviews with other teachers and students. The new compensation structure will be determined by teacher performance rather than service time or educational attainment.
Teachers will be designated as a beginning teacher, a professional teacher — similar to the role classroom teachers play today — or a master teacher. Under a new pay scale, a master teacher could make more money than a beginning principal.
“We want our master teachers to stay in the classroom,” Cash said. “Traditionally, to make more money, teachers have had to come out of the classroom and into a principalship.”
The plan calls for placing master teachers in the schools and classrooms where they are most needed. Though the specifics are not yet determined, Memphis Education Association executive director Ken Foster said that the designation of “master teacher” may come with a stipulation that a teacher could be assigned to another school or it might mean that a teacher would be asked to go to a different school for one year in an advisory capacity.
“The principal doesn’t want to lose that teacher; the parents don’t want to lose that teacher,” Foster said. “We all understand the problems with it. I don’t think we have a definitive answer yet.”
Retention of experienced teachers is also part of the TEI plan; district data shows that when schools lose teachers, they’re just as likely to lose highly effective ones as ones who are not as effective.
The Gates’ funding would be paired with $30-$40 million from MCS’ general fund and $20 million in private fund-raising from the MCS Foundation.
Cash thinks the award would be good for Memphis as a whole. If the TEI ultimately means more MCS students going to — and graduating from — college, that could lead to a corresponding decrease in poverty and crime levels.
“This will catapult MCS into the national spotlight,” he said, “and will be the primary lever for improving the city’s quality of life.”
As part of the research component, the district plans to ask for 1,000 teachers to volunteer to be observed and videotaped four times a year for two years. Volunteers will receive up to a $1,500 stipend.
“It’s important to capture the definition of what is an effective teacher,” Foster said. “We think we know, but it hasn’t been captured by researchers.”
If the Gates Foundation doesn’t award funding to MCS, the school district says it will continue with the reforms, albeit on a much smaller scale. Already, the district and the MEA have begun revising teacher evaluations.
“The news has been glum lately,” Cash said. “I see it as an opportunity. Now more than ever, we need to come together and unite the city.”
An announcement about the Gates Foundation grant should be forthcoming Wednesday. Memphis is in the running with three other school systems.