Before "Memphis As a Model"


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A few weeks ago, I wrote about Memphis City Schools' Teacher Effectiveness Initiative and what it could mean for both the city and the state of Tennessee.

But, b/c of scheduling conflicts, one thing that was never included in the story was how Memphis came to be awarded more than $90 million from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

About a year and a half ago, the foundation began a request for proposals from certain school systems among the nation's roughly 15,000.


"We decided we wouldn't go with the very largest systems and we wouldn't go with the smallest systems," says Colleen Oliver, senior program officer for the foundation.

Because of the foundation's focus on issues of poverty and access, they also wanted school systems with a certain level of poverty, and in states where student growth could be used to measure teacher effectiveness.

The end result was about 22 school systems, of which MCS was one, that Gates approached about the idea of partnering with them.

"Memphis made it through at the earliest stages and showed a willingness to want to continue," Oliver says.

After initial site visits, the foundation chose 10 that they invited to submit proposals, eventually granting funding to four.

Oliver, who is now in Memphis for about two weeks of every month, says MCS' proposal stood out for its thoughtful plan to define and evaluate effective teaching, the collaboration with partners such as New Leaders for New Schools and The New Teacher Project, the community's support of the plan, and the notion that master teachers should be in the classroom.

"To be a master teacher, you need to influence your peers, but you also need to have a broader impact on students," Oliver says. "Traditionally, the more effective teachers get the farther away from children they get."

The hope is that every student has access to an effective teacher, every day, every class, every year, but they put special import on those students who have traditionally been underserved or marginalized in schools.

"The neighborhood I live in shouldn't determine if I have access to a great teacher. It should be the norm," Oliver says.

For the Gates Foundation, the work is about transforming the way we think about education in this country.

"There's not any school district in the nation — if Memphis is successful — that will be able to say, 'I can't do it,'" Oliver says.

"There are going to be bumps along the way. That's part of being a trailblazer. Some things are going to work and some things are not. I hope it will still have support in Memphis even when there are bumps."


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