Thursday, October 30, 2014

A Little School Privatization History About Memphis

If you think it is just the poor schools that will be turned to charters, think again.  Sooner or later they will want to turn your middle class school into one, and my guess is you will pay for it, and you will have no say into how it is run.
In the fall of 2009, a strange change took place in Memphis City Schools (MCS) that may have been one precursor of more drastic things to follow. Certainly, there were already monumental shifts going on: principal removals, “everyone to college” mantras, and so-called school turnarounds. But this particular change I think is noteworthy.
Parents and teachers were startled to learn of a new high school block schedule and the addition of two more classes to an already crowded six course regimen. This transformation was districtwide. Most troubling perhaps, was that all this took place seemingly overnight, with scant input from the public. There was little time for teachers to prepare for such a drastic change. Many worried how this would affect students.
At White Station High School, in Memphis, one of the best schools in the city, and in the state, parents scratched their heads as they learned of this new schedule and how it would affect their school. Teachers were angered to hear they would lose planning time. Already the school had the highest number of National Merit Scholars, even higher than the area’s prestigious private schools. And they had college recruiters from an array of high level universities.
Of course, according to critics, all is not perfect at White Station, a school that has, what some call, an elitist optional program. This program attracts students from around the Memphis area. There are poor students there too, and the diverse school is often criticized for not integrating students better once they walk through the door. But was a block schedule with 8 classes the answer? Shouldn’t parents and teachers and school officials have had a discussion about it? Couldn’t the school’s difficulties been fixed? Shouldn’t what worked at White Station have been applied at other schools?
And White Station was not the only good school in Memphis by any means. Other schools were improving–some by leaps and bounds. For example, Whitehaven High School had received $143 million in scholarship money just that previous June, and not just sports scholarships. What was Whitehaven doing right? Didn’t anyone want to know? Why was an arbitrary new schedule being foisted on schools when poor schools were already striving hard and succeeding to make the kind of improvements that would help kids?
According to school board member at the time Dr. Jeff Warren the board followed the ideas of Eli Broad, a prominent business man turned school reformer. Why, Warren was asked by parents, would the board listen to Broad, an outsider with no children in the school district? Why would he not, instead, listen to his hometown constituents? Warren replied that the board liked Broad’s ideas. Indeed, the MCS board was working in one of Broad’s three school reformation programs, the Broad School Board Governance Program. Broad’s activity in any school district is highly sought after by administrators who see his stamp of approval like a Pulitzer or Nobel Prize for schools. Memphis is not alone.
At the same time, in 2009, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation also came to Memphis, awarding the cash-strapped Memphis City School System $90 million to work primarily on Teacher Effectiveness. Supt. Kriner Cash, who would later lose his job in the overall school transition plan, reflected the feelings of many when he said, “This is huge, this is huge, this puts Memphis City Schools in a very elite territory, on the front page of the nation.”
The grant included $1.9 million for training which included videotaping teachers under the guidance of Harvard economist Thomas Kane. And a lesser known plan for teachers involved setting them up with earbuds where they would listen to coaches across the room giving them directions on how to teach.
The larger project, however, involved the use of Value Added Measurement (VAM) with teachers, promoted by the Gates Foundation in the Measures of Effective Teaching (MET) study. VAM has become a serious issue in Tennessee and the country. The Tennessee Education Association has pushed back against its use when it comes to their licenses. But VAM was used to fire four Nashville teachers just this week. And one can expect, with the draconian atmosphere in Tennessee against teachers, that more firings are around the corner.
While Gates and Broad looked to be all about effecting changes within public schools, it is important to note, what many of us know, that they also support groups that are all about privatizing schools. Teach For America (TFA), The New Teacher Project, the Memphis Residency Program, New Leaders for New Schools and Stand for Children all work towards replacing career teachers with novices and converting public schools to charter schools. These are all organizations heavily supported by not just Broad and Gates, but many other businesses and politicians, local and nationwide.
In 2011, the Memphis City School district (approx. 100,000 students) surrendered its charter, forcing a merger with the Shelby County Schools (approx. 40,000 students in the suburbs) outside of Memphis. Many in the county saw it as a hostile takeover on the part of the city schools. Others saw it as a way to finally bridge the racial divide between the city and the county. The merger, which went into effect in 2013, became the largest school consolidation measure ever. But it was not to last. The following year the county schools broke into municipalities. And the actions seem to have made way for more charter schools and a city school administration with few, if any, real educators.
The suburbs, which had always opposed charter schools, had to eventually accept them. Matt Throckmorton who was the director of the Tennessee Charter School Association stated, “Unfortunately, many school districts think of charter schools as a penalty. We need to stop looking at it that way. We need to focus on what is best for the children. Children should have the option of going to a zoned school or to a charter school. These schools could take kids just sort of getting by and turn them loose (academically).” Yet, there is no proof of this. CREDO.
The Transition Planning Committee (TPC) which dealt with the merger was made up primarily of individuals who had signed on to Stand for Children, politicians and businessmen. One of the commissioners, Mike Carpenter, eventually left his post to join Michelle Rhee’s Students First. One of the Memphis City School board members, Tomeka Hart, is now Vice President of African-American Community Partnerships for Teach For America.
I was a finalist for my district to originally be on the TPC, but I was oddly removed from the process before my final presentation to the Shelby County Commissioners. I was the only educator, a longtime teacher, with a PhD in my field. One of the commissioners, Terry Rowland, gave an impassioned speech to the press, before the last meeting, claiming the candidates had been chosen ahead of time. The individual who eventually got the position was also from Stand for Children.
Jump ahead to 2014. Many changes have occurred to the schools in Memphis. Everyone is getting over the takeover that broke up the old county system into small municipal school districts, each led now by different superintendents. While parents want this to work, there has been much concern over how to fund schools well. The conversion of Memphis City Schools to Shelby County Schools produced a lot of changes, but few will tell you it brought people together. Much gnashing of teeth took place pitting people against each other. The way it was done, the lack of involvement by the people who were affected, stripped the city schools especially of a sense of community. And there has been much chaos and loss of money including $48.4 million in missing equipment.
The Memphis City Schools now have the Achievement School District, which includes an array of charter schools, none which have proven to be better than regular public schools. They also have i-Zone schools which are turnaround schools that get extra money from a school improvement grant, and the regular schools, many which are fighting to remain open. The charter schools with their eyes on Memphis include Yes Prep and Green Dot, among others, which have been supported by Broad and Gates and other business leaders in the past. When the real schools close, the teachers will have to reapply to the charter schools to get their jobs back. But those from Teach For America, or other like groups will most likely get hired instead.
There have been other changes too in Memphis, most of which have not been well-received. The University of Memphis will begin offering a Memphis Teacher Residency Program, similar to Teach For America, prep program, across the hall from the real teacher program to make authentic career teachers. While the university has made it more difficult for career bound teachers to graduate, trying to squelch years of criticism that they aren’t doing a good job, the new program looks like it is posing to take over. Many business leaders are all onboard for the TFA types, calling Memphis “Teacher Town.” The Gates Foundation is rumored to be behind the program. The professors in the College of Education were not included in the decision-making.
To be sure, the Memphis changes are disconcerting in many ways, but mostly because of how they seem to separate and divide under a false sense of progress. Recently, I attended a meeting of the Memphis Leadership Institute which, as its name implies, grooms young, bright individuals, many of color, to become leaders in charter schools and the community. They are well-dressed and sharp talkers. It is obvious that they are deeply committed to doing their idea of a good job. In many ways they epitomize those seen by the black community, and the community in general, as fine leaders.
The problem is that few of them have any real background or understanding of children and their development. They speak authoritatively and positively about data points and high-stakes testing, Common Core and getting students to college, but they don’t seem to realize that education is much more than that. When I asked one gentleman from Stand for Children what credentials it would take to start a charter school, his answer was none. All you needed was a good application–a plan. This is alarming.
The good news is that there is pushback against charter schools. Several have pulled out citing capacity concerns. Parents are questioning if their schools are really failing, many don’t seem to be, and they wonder how any charter school business from outside Memphis could be good for their children. And more recently, the Shelby County School Board looks to be slowing down on the ASD. Starting more charters when the ones you have aren’t doing well doesn’t make a lot of sense, like many of the changes in Memphis haven’t made much sense.
There are many teacher and parent activists. Tennessee teachers Lucianna Sanson and Lee-Ann Pepper Nolan from the National and State BAT groups have written strong articles in defense of real public schools. HERE. Parent groups like TREES and Momma Bears have also stood strong against privatization.
Yet, thus far, the state is stating that more public schools will close and be turned over to the ASD. It is to them a done deal. Remember when charters were sold as what parents would want. Well, now we are finding out what happens when they don’t want them.
As far as the block schedule and the 8 classes: the schedule was dropped and they also dropped one class, students have 7 classes now, which still seems like too many. It will be interesting to see what eventually happens to high-performing schools like White Station and Whitehaven and all those that are making steady progress. And what will happen to the municipal suburban schools? Will they all be turned into charter schools too eventually?
Memphis is a lovely city, and I like the people here too. But the poverty is severe. There is no sign that the charters that have taken over are doing better. Certainly, they aren’t doing well enough to take over more schools and move into the suburbs. There is little to be seen of true efforts to bring people together when those at the top fail to listen. If the schools don’t make progress, it is because there are too many competing against each other. Children in poor schools also need real teachers, not substitutes from fast-track programs. It is very sad to think about what could have been and what is actually happening in Memphis.
Clark, Kym. “Extra Credit: Whitehaven High Scholarship Money.” WMC Action News 5. June 2, 2009.
Roberts, Jane. “Parents angry over many city schools changes.” Commercial Appeal.October 6, 2009.
Five School Boards and Superintendents Selected to Participate in Executive Governance Trainings to Improve Student Achievement. Business Wire. July 16, 2008.
Roberts, Jane. “Memphis City Schools. Accept $90 million Gates Foundation Grant.”Commercial Appeal. November 18, 2009.
Roberts, Jane. Memphis City Schools Teachers Get An Earbud-ful of Class Coaching.”Commercial Appeal. February 22, 2011.
Learning About Teaching: Initial Findings from the Measures of Effective Teaching Project. The MET Project. December, 2010.
Dillon, Sam. “Merger of Memphis and County School Districts Revives Race and Class Challenges.” The New York Times. November 5, 2011.
“Charter Schools Unwelcome in the Suburbs.”
Editorial. Shelby County Commissioner Terry Roland Lashes Out at Newspaper, Process of Appointing School Board. Commercial Appeal. September 12, 2011 .
Roberts, Jane. “Audit of Shelby Schools Shows ‘Staggering’ $48.4 million in Missing Equipment.” Commercial Appeal December 2, 2013.
Morrison, Oliver. Memphis Teacher Residency Program Expands, Gets Statewide Recognition. Chalkbeat TENNESSEE. August 14, 2014.
Dries, Bill. “Teacher Town.” Memphis Daily News. March 23, 2013.
Burnette, Daarel. “Citing Capacity Concerns, KIPP, Freedom Prep Pull Out of ASD Takeover Process. Chalkbeat TENNESSEE, October 27, 2014.
Sanson, Lucianna and Lee-Ann P. Nolan. “Making Money Off Students.” LA Progressive. October 2, 2014 and “Tennessee Students ‘Fastest Improving at Making Money for Venture Capitalists.’” Herald Chronicle. October 29, 2014.

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