Memphis City Schools superintendent Johnnie Watson is on the right track in pledging to reconstitute those schools still on the state's low-performing list in 2004. Under an approach based on high standards and accountability, reconstituting schools should be viewed as the final sanction for schools that are not achieving.
The first step is regular assessments, required by the state and now by the federal government under the "No Child Left Behind Act." Whether we like it or not, annual testing is a fact of life. If tests are aligned with curricula, they can be an important tool to identify schools and students that are not measuring up.
Our community is now faced with the second and perhaps most crucial step in turning around our failing schools: giving them the resources they need to achieve.
School districts like Memphis face myriad challenges, such as a shortage of qualified teachers, high concentrations of poverty, and inadequate facilities and resources. They cannot be expected to shoulder the burden alone. The No Child Left Behind Act was tied to a 15 percent increase in federal education funding for this very purpose.
Although the Bush administration's 2003 budget only provided a 2.8 percent increase in education dollars, I am working with my colleagues in Congress to make good on the promise to help states and school districts like Memphis meet this new federal mandate.
At the local level, the school board, administrators, and elected officials have offered a number of proposals to improve student performance, including school uniforms, extending the school year, tutoring, and after-school programs. I am encouraged by these proposals.
The next step should be to leverage the expertise, resources, and time of our leading corporate citizens and employers to get the schools off the state's list. In major cities throughout the nation, school systems have partnered with civic-minded business leaders to promote and maintain high standards. If there was ever a time to initiate such a partnership in Memphis, it is now.
Since December, I have worked with various corporate leaders, students, principals, and teachers to formulate a turnaround plan to encourage companies to become directly involved with the 64 schools on the state's poor-performing list. Under the proposal, participating businesses would work with principals and teachers in low-performing schools. They would identify specific needs and then provide the schools with assistance in exchange for a federal tax credit for the amount of committed resources. Companies would be expected to look within their own organizations for volunteers to provide tutoring, mentoring, or other expertise.
Participating businesses should look to the efforts at Snowden and Carnes elementary schools, among others, where principals are using performance data to raise test scores, identify under-performing students, and hold teachers accountable. This approach not only helps students perform better on tests, it serves as an "early warning system" to identify where they are falling short and need help.
Business leaders should not be expected to meet the challenge of improving our schools just because it is the right thing to do. They should also partner with schools because it is in their self-interest. It puts a premium on knowledge in a global marketplace in which employers are increasingly having difficulty recruiting skilled workers.
The Business Roundtable estimates that the percentage of U.S. companies reporting a lack of skilled employees as a barrier to growth has increased from 27 percent to 69 percent over the last 10 years. Maintaining high standards will pay dividends in the form of an educated workforce, and the entire community will benefit.
A "turnaround team" is not a silver bullet that will solve all of our education problems, but it is a vital element of a broader community effort to give students the knowledge and skills to succeed in today's marketplace.
Harold Ford Jr. is congressman for Tennessee's 7th District and is a member of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce.