A year or so ago, Victoria Van Cleef was clearing out the local offices of the New Teacher Project. The organization, which was brought in by former Memphis City Schools (MCS) superintendent Carol Johnson, had a federal grant to help recruit qualified teacher applicants to the beleaguered school system.
But the grant was winding down, and the New Teacher Project was ending its work — with mixed results. The organization had found additional teacher candidates, but the status quo hadn't changed. So most of the staff was relocating to Nashville to work on other projects.
"It never quite had momentum," says Van Cleef, vice president of staffing initiatives for the New Teacher Project. "There were a lot of bureaucratic barriers to overcome. It never felt like an integrated strategy." And then the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation entered the picture.
When Memphis was invited to apply for foundation funding, the district crafted a plan that put the New Teacher Project in charge of hiring the district's teachers. Van Cleef found herself paying off deposits, renting moving trucks, and bringing staff back to Memphis.
And in November, the district was one of four school districts nationally to be awarded a share of $290 million as an "Intensive Partnership for Effective Teaching" site.
Memphis was awarded $90 million over seven years for its Teacher Effectiveness Initiative (TEI). In addition, Memphis was awarded almost $2 million for the foundation's Measures of Effective Teaching project.
By comparison, Hillsborough County Public Schools in Florida got $100 million; Pittsburgh (Pennsylvania) Public Schools was awarded $40 million; and the College-Ready Promise, a coalition of charter schools in Los Angeles, was awarded $60 million.
"Gates is not a foundation that only a few people know about," says Memphis City Schools board member Tomeka Hart. "It's very competitive. They're not just going to fund fluff programs."
Four months later, the federal government announced the winners of its Race to the Top challenge — a pot of more than $4 billion in grants established to implement comprehensive school reform over the next four years. Only two states "won" any funding: Delaware received a $100 million award, and Tennessee got more than $500 million.
MCS expects to see $69 million in Race to the Top funding over the next four years. Its work with the Gates Foundation was integral to Tennessee's win.
"There are resources available to the district that have never been available before," says MCS deputy superintendent Irving Hamer. "There's no match in other jurisdictions."
Pennsylvania and Florida didn't get Race to the Top funding; Delaware doesn't have Gates money.
The money and the initiatives the funding is allowing — even mandating — the district to pursue have put Memphis in the spotlight of national education reform.
"It's a different landscape right now. The momentum is here," says MCS superintendent Kriner Cash. "But the key to it all is that we have to now implement it."
And for a district with a 62 percent graduation rate and a city where less than a quarter of the residents have a college degree, the stakes have never been higher.
Much of the recent thinking about education reform centers on teacher effectiveness.
"The research has shown that the most important factor in student achievement is the teacher," Hart says. "We can talk about kids coming from this background or that background — and I'm not saying that's not a factor — but the most important thing is what happens when a student walks into the classroom."
As part of a national study called "The Widget Effect," the New Teacher Project looked at 12 districts and 42,000 teacher evaluations. What they found was that virtually all teachers were rated "good" or "great" by their superiors — even first-year teachers.
"First-year teachers struggle. Being a first-year teacher is going to make you cry," Van Cleef says. "It's okay to be struggling, but you should have gotten a lower grade."
The problems were obvious: Teachers weren't getting real feedback on their performance, and those who needed to be fired weren't.
And if all teachers were good or great, then why was student achievement lagging behind?
"For the history of teacher evaluations, we looked at what the teachers do: Do they have a word wall? Do they have an objective? We never turn the lens on the kids," Van Cleef says. "How are the kids doing? That's the truest reflection of how teachers are doing."
But how to judge something like that? It can't be based on one standardized test a year, and what do you do for teachers of music or physical education?
That's the question both Gates and the New Teacher Project, as well as others around the country, are striving to answer.
Van Cleef was working for the New York City Department of Education when they engaged the New Teacher Project to hire alternatively certified teachers.
In 2002, she moved to Memphis because her husband is a researcher at St. Jude Children's Research Hospital. Around that time, the New Teacher Project wrote a research report called "Missed Opportunities," and the U.S. Department of Education gave them a grant to build a "model" human-resources department somewhere.
"I had moved here and realized the school district had problems and could use some help," Van Cleef says. She reached out to then Superintendent Johnson, Teresa Sloyan at the Hyde Family Foundation, and Ethele Hilliard at the now-defunct PIPE, or Partners in Public Education.
"I said you should apply for this grant. It could help you with your teacher supply problems," she says.
At the time, the district had about 600 vacancies and 1,200 applicants, leaving principals with little room to be choosy, especially in math, science, and special education.
In addition to winning that grant, MCS also brought in two other national players, Teach for America and New Leaders for New Schools, to help with staffing.
Though it never quite came together under Johnson, having what Cash calls "a royal flush" of national strategic partners on the ground in Memphis helped set the stage for change.
Memphis:The Perfect Laboratory
Memphis has seen education reform before, of course, and not always with optimal results. Under Superintendent Gerry House, the district turned to optional schools. More recent developments have seen a rise in privately run but publicly funded charter schools.
"The country, this district, and others have 30 to 40 years of reform efforts that have already happened: Annenberg, Pew, Ford, Carnegie, Gates ... all of them have been trying to support and generate school reform," says Hamer, who was raised in Harlem and has a master's in educational administration and a doctorate in learning environments and social policy from Harvard.
"I think it's fair to say it has been less than successful. We've seen pockets of success, but there's been no fundamental change to public education."
The current situation has been called "the perfect storm," a moment when "the stars all aligned" and the city is primed to be "the epicenter of urban education reform." It's a coalescing of state law, private and public funding, and sophisticated data sets.
"It's not done yet, so I'm a little tentative in talking about it," Hamer says, "but all the pieces are there."
In addition, Memphis has the distinction of being the right size.
"Memphis is the perfect laboratory for reforming urban education," Sloyan says. "It is a district that has the challenges of any major district, but we have a scale where it's not huge and insurmountable, like New York or Los Angeles.
Under the Teacher Effectiveness Initiative, or TEI, the district said it was going to make smarter decisions about who teaches MCS students, it was going to improve teacher support, and it was going to create better conditions in schools to foster better teaching.
Sounds easy, right? But perhaps the strength in Memphis' plan was that it was seen as "bold" but also realistic.
"When we looked at student achievement and graduation rates, standardized tests, and college readiness, it became clear that we needed to look at our overall human capital strategy," Cash says. "Who are our best teachers? Where are they teaching? How long do they stay?"
Formerly the head of accountability for the Miami-Dade County Public Schools, Cash is a big believer in data, and the district has pinpointed exactly who its most effective teachers are.
(Make no mistake: It knows who its least effective teachers are, too.)
One of the critical components of the plan was turning teacher recruitment and retention over to the New Teacher Project, which set the ambitious goal of hiring the majority of teachers it needed for the district's lowest-performing schools by April 15th.
Historically, the district wouldn't have hired a single teacher by then. In fact, the district typically waited until the summer to begin hiring new teachers for the following school year. In the past, particularly at schools that Cash and Hamer call the district's "most fragile," that process had often lasted into August, September, even October — well into the school year.
"It's important that hiring is done as early as possible," Cash says. "We now get to pick who it is we want teaching in our schools as opposed to being relegated to picking those people who are available. The later it happens, the less choice you have."
"We've talked for years about how ridiculous our hiring process is," Hart says. "By the time we get around to making hiring decisions, all the quality candidates are gone."
The New Teacher Project focuses on hiring smarter and earlier.
They began with the district's lowest-performing schools, to give those principals first access to the talent pool. Once they met their goal, they moved onto the other schools. By mid-June, 70 percent of the district's teachers had been hired.
"We're staffing each school, not just staffing the district," Van Cleef says. "We want to be sure we're making a good match in that building. That goes back to 'The Widget Effect' and operating like teachers are plug-and-play units."
As part of the application, the New Teacher Project asks candidates to review student work, giving principals an "instructional picture" of that teacher.
The organization also looks for applicants who have persevered amid difficulty or offer evidence of continued learning.
"We're trying to build an applicant pool that is the most likely to be effective in an urban system. You can't say that just because someone has a 4.0 from Harvard that they're going to be an effective teacher," Van Cleef says.
Traditionally, the most successful teachers have gone on to become principals. Teaching students and administering a school might be different skill sets, but being a principal pays better.
That salary disparity takes some of the most talented and veteran teachers out of the classroom.
Under the TEI, the district aims to reform that career ladder by "re-imagining its entire compensation system" and giving teachers more support. Under the new system, teachers will be deemed "beginning," "professional," or "master" teachers. And master teachers can make as much as principals.
The compensation issue could be a thorny one. Race to the Top stipulations dictated that states include an approach to merit or incentive pay. A recent New York Times Magazine story highlighted how teachers' unions blocked Race to the Top finalist New York from meeting the federal contest's core requirements. In the same article, Tennessee governor Phil Bredesen was quoted as saying Memphis' $90 million Gates grant had "broken the ice" for the state's Race to the Top application.
States had to show that they were willing to eliminate seniority-based compensation and permanent job security. In Tennessee, that meant passing January's First to the Top Act, which allowed school districts to create their own salary schedules.
In Memphis, Cash and his administration appealed to the Memphis Education Association (MEA) from the beginning. The superintendent says he wants teachers and principals to drive the work and is emphatic that they understand and support what the district is doing.
In fact, an interview with the superintendent and select members of his staff included — at Cash's request — MEA executive director Ken Foster.
"My belief, as a union leader, is if you can make $90,000 a year as a teacher, I want to be able to provide you with that opportunity," Foster says.
To make the idea more palatable to union members, current teachers are allowed to pick which salary schedule they will be on.
"Some folks say you should have said no," Foster says. "I go to the bargaining table for our members every three years. If I say no and it costs us $90 million, what do you think is going to happen when I go back to the bargaining table?
"We don't have any other money. ... We just have to be pragmatic."
Nationally, the issue is one and the same. With Race to the Top coming straight from the Obama administration — a president the teachers' union supported — and community support behind the change, the MEA has worked closely with the district to be flexible but also to fight for local teachers.
"You're going to find yourself swimming upstream," Foster says. "Why not get in there while you can still have some impact?"
One thing that is still up for discussion is how teachers — especially veteran teachers — will be assigned to schools. Under the TEI, the district would like to send its most effective teachers to its lowest-performing schools.
Those schools are not the ones generally sought out by teachers, and seniority partially dictates who gets the plum assignments.
"Teachers want to believe that seniority counts for something," Foster says. "It's a morale issue."
The union and the district are looking for compromises, such as teachers possibly spending half-days at two different schools or letting teachers take a year-long sabbatical to teach in a lower-performing school while ensuring their previous position is theirs to return to the following year.
"Just because you're a master teacher at White Station, does that mean you'll be one at Carver?" Foster asks. "If you're unhappy because they send you to Mitchell, are you going to do as good a job?"
"It's not rocket science," Hart says of what happens at White Station High School, generally regarded as the district's flagship. "Motivated students, motivated parents, and teachers that have high expectations. That's the model. That's it."
As part of the TEI, the district aims to change school culture, a burden that, in the past, has rested on the school's adults.
"We had a bit of an epiphany: Young people actually have some responsibility for the content and character of a school's climate," Hamer says.
This summer, the district tapped 800 middle and high school students to be part of a two-week camp through the national, not-for-profit Efficacy Institute. Though not initially part of the original TEI plan, the "student envoys" are seen as key.
During the program, students learn that knowledge isn't inherent but developed. One exercise involves rolling two meditation balls in one hand, a task the teacher makes look easy. For the students, it's a challenge that gets easier with practice.
"The idea is that failure is just an event to be overcome," Hamer says.
And in the fall, Hamer hopes the envoys will be sharing that particular knowledge with their peers.
The Race to the Top
Under the federal Race to the Top competition, in March, Tennessee was awarded $501 million over a four-year period. Half of that money is going to the state board of education. The other $250 million will be divided among local educational districts, based on the Title 1 funding formula.
Memphis, which has a large number of Title 1 schools, expects to receive about $70 million.
Much like the Gates application, the Race to the Top application encouraged school districts to think about bold education reform. At the same time, the plan had to be executable. It needed to include collaboration with national players such as Teach for America and the New Teacher Project, and there needed to be public backing for it.
"Much of the work done in Memphis was a key piece," says Sloyan, a member of the state's Race to the Top application team. "The governor often said that Memphis has been the lighthouse with so much of the work on teacher effectiveness. It showed the way."
While Memphis was working on its Gates application, it was having long conversations with the state about what changes needed to happen in the legislature.
"The pair of them were in alignment in terms of concept: using data for teacher evaluations, using national partners to help with human capital. A lot of the things incurring in Race to the Top were part and parcel to the TEI work in Memphis," says Tennessee department of education commissioner Tim Webb.
The result of all of those conversations was the state's First to the Top Act, signed by Bredesen in January, which allows local school districts to create their own salary schedules, removes previous limitations on using student achievement data in tenure decisions, and requires annual evaluations for every principal and teacher. For teachers, 50 percent of the evaluation has to come from student achievement data; of that, 35 percent has to come from growth data.
Having the data was also integral to winning Race to the Top.
In the early '90s, Tennessee began using what is known as TVAAS data: the Tennessee value-added assessment system. Developed by statistician and University of Tennessee professor William Sanders, the system uses TCAP and Gateway exams to track not just how much a student knows that year but how much a student has learned from the previous year.
"The linkage between the student and the teacher is the driving force of what's going on around the country," Webb says. "That gave us a leg-up on the competition." (It was data that also gave Memphis a leg-up when it came to the Gates funding.)
The state's Race to the Top application was also able to demonstrate that the community was behind it.
Stand for Children is an education advocacy group currently active in six states. The local chapter, headed by Kenya Bradshaw, is based in the Soulsville neighborhood across from the Stax charter school.
In the days leading up to the First to the Top vote, the group was making daily calls to legislatures and asking community members to sign a petition of support.
"Eight thousand people signed to show their support for the state's Race to the Top application. We were one of the few states that could show broad support for the plan," Bradshaw says.
In Memphis, the Race to the Top money will be used on additional pre-K classrooms and on an effectiveness initiative for principals. Already, the district has installed 55 new principals in the last two years, providing new leadership to a quarter of its schools.
"Every year, we have 8,400 new kindergarten children," Hamer says. "Of those, 3,100 have had some early childhood education. The rest do not, and we see a sharp distinction between those who have and those who haven't."
The paradox is that while the district has a windfall of cash for education reform, it continues to cry poor.
The yearly budget is a roughly $900 million monster. Critics cite both lagging enrollment numbers and an operating budget that in recent years has ballooned at a much faster pace than the city's.
The district doesn't skimp on administrative salaries, either: Cash makes more than $275,000 a year, and Hamer earns about $188,000.
In an attempt to force single-source funding — and balance the city budget at the same time — the Memphis City Council in 2008 cut $57 million in funding to the district. Two courts have ruled against the city and an appeal is still pending before the state Supreme Court, leaving the money tied up in litigation.
Earlier this year, the district laid off almost 600 workers, including 400 part-time elementary school teacher aides.
"The truth of the matter is: We haven't gotten an increase in funding since 2005," Hart says. "We still have to account for inflation. People ask why the budget is going up if the [district's student population] is going down. We're racing with the times."
Though it means an additional $160 million for the district over the next seven years, none of the Gates or Race to the Top money can be used for day-to-day district operations. It has to be used for education reform.
"Some districts plan to use it to hire data coaches to teach their teachers how to use TVAAS data," says Amanda Anderson with the state department of education of the federal funding. "Better use of the TVAAS data is one of the keystones of our Race to the Top application."
But for a district that has trouble coming up with money to run its business now, how will it be able to sustain the reforms it's implementing?
The district estimates the initiative will cost $46 million annually after the grant period is over, $35 million of which will be for teacher salaries. Cash says they've created a reserve fund so they can sustain the changes for the next 10 to 15 years.
"We're building it in as we go," he says. "With the uncertain financial environment that the city and the school board are in ... if we didn't have these resources, it would be hard to say where we would be in comprehensive reform at this time. There's a need to get resolution on the funding streams from local bodies."
In the grand scheme of things, the Gates money is only an additional $13 million a year, or roughly 1.4 percent of the budget. But supporters say the opportunity it provides is immeasurable.
"What the Gates grant did was provide the district with the opportunity to dramatically rethink its priorities," Sloyan says.
Van Cleef agrees. "Money at this scale means you can't just do more of the same. You have to fix it," she says. "Historically, districts have reacted [by doing] a little bit more of what they already do. This lets you blow it out."
It's too early to say if the initiatives will "fix" anything, but educators around the country are waiting and watching.
"All eyes are on Memphis," Van Cleef says. "It really is ground zero. It's a little scary. ... But I've worked with the district since 2003, and I've never seen it move as fast as it's moving now."
If successful, the long-range benefits will include improved ACT scores, students who are college-ready when they graduate from high school, and a more skilled workforce throughout the state.
"It's so much bigger than the Gates grant. It is fundamentally changing how we recruit, support, and make other employment decisions for our teachers," Hart says. "Our statement is what happens in the classroom is more important than anything else."
For the city of Memphis, the impact will be just as important.
"Memphis is a community that is on the bubble. It could continue to be a high-poverty, high-crime, under-educated community," Hamer says. "Or it could transition to a 21st-century renaissance city."