It was like old times, in more ways than one, at an assembly at East High School this week. On stage, U.S. senator Lamar Alexander sat next to former Grahamwood Elementary School principal Margaret Taylor, who sat next to Mayor Willie Herenton.
Alexander gave a heartfelt speech about his long friendships with West Tennesseans Herenton, Taylor, and the late Alex Haley, author of Roots, which became a television epic before today's students were born. Taylor unabashedly hugged Herenton, whose support for optional schools and Grahamwood in particular was vital when he was superintendent 25 years ago. And Herenton, who was greeted with a standing ovation, talked inspiringly about the importance of education to the 900-plus students in the audience.
The man of the hour, however, was another Memphian who's been around a while — businessman Charles McVean, a 1961 East High graduate and benefactor of the Greater East High Foundation to the tune of approximately $2 million. A few years ago, McVean had an epiphany: He could give $1 million to his college alma mater, Vanderbilt University, which has an endowment worth over $1 billion. Or he could give it to East to pay for extra support teachers, facility improvements, and direct payments to students who make good grades and tutor other students.
Pay-for-performance was the most interesting new wrinkle. The idea was to pay students up to $10 an hour for tutoring and as much money as they could make working at McDonald's for working harder on their homework instead.
On a modest scale, it appears to be working. A total of 110 students are involved as either tutors or "scholars" who make a commitment to good grades and good behavior in exchange for some of McVean's cash. A similar program, with a different benefactor, Dr. Jerre Freeman, is being implemented at Whitehaven High School. And on Monday The New York Times reported that 25 public high schools in New York City are paying up to $1,000 to students who do well on Advanced Placement exams. Philanthropists are funding the program.
Alexander, a Vanderbilt graduate who was governor of Tennessee and U.S. Secretary of Education before winning a Senate seat in 2002, likes McVean's merit program and doesn't mind seeing his gifts staying in Memphis instead of going to Vandy.
"Charles can see every day real results from the way he spends his money," said Alexander, a proponent of merit pay increases for teachers when he was governor. "Our biggest challenge in American education is kindergarten through 12th grade."
Cash-for-performance, so long as it isn't paid for by government, is "a terrific idea," said Alexander. "I'm for what works."
Alexander met Taylor during his first term as governor. He wanted to visit a Memphis public school, and Grahamwood was so popular at the time that parents, most of them white, camped out at the Board of Education offices to get spots in the optional program. Taylor said Herenton suggested Grahamwood even though "it was controversial" because every other school coveted such attention. Taylor, who is in her 80s, works as a tutor and support teacher in algebra classes at East five days a week.
In the movies, there would be hundreds of East students and tutors earning college scholarships each year, but reality is not like that. East is as racially segregated as it was 40 years ago, but now there are almost no white students. There are actually slightly fewer tutors this year than last year due to graduation losses and the commitment that is required. "It takes a while to train them," said Bill Sehnert, a McVean hire who works full-time at East. And tutors are now starting to work on ACT preparation and in classes besides algebra, in effect plugging one leak only to find another one somewhere else.
"It doesn't do any good to pass algebra and flunk English," Sehnert said.
McVean, a commodities trader who has seen his personal fortunes rise and fall many times, is undeterred. The Greater East High Foundation got off to a rough start when it came out of the gate a few years ago and basically had to start all over. A less determined person might seize upon the program's partial successes, claim a victory, accept some applause, and bow out. Instead, McVean wants to focus attention on the large number of less-motivated students who aren't buying into the program and being served.
"The secret to success in any business," he said, "is to find a good idea and leverage it."