Memphis is known as the Home of the Blues and Birthplace of Rock-and-Roll. It’s a city people sing about—over 1,000 commercial recordings of over 800 songs mention “Memphis.” Landmarks like Graceland mark it as the home of Elvis Presley and the National Civil Rights Museum marks the spot where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated on April 4, 1968—a moment frozen in time in the communal memory of our city.
Nearly 50 years after Dr. King gave his life here in the fight for equality, only 6 percent of kids in our city graduate high school ready for college. Only 26 percent of residents in the Memphis Metropolitan Area hold a bachelor’s degree. We are not living up to the legacy left to us by Civil Rights leaders when a quality education is still a privilege in our region and not a right.
As we consider the educational landscape in Memphis today, we are convinced that our city must be the place that fulfills Dr. King’s dreams of a day when we are “an oasis of freedom and justice”; a place that refuses to question whether some kids can achieve and others can’t, but instead demands that all do at the highest of levels. We must work to create an unstoppable movement focused on realizing Dr. King’s dream of equal opportunity for every citizen. For far too long, our community’s children of color and those in poverty have been robbed of this dream. We must work to foster the leadership of our kids—equipping them with the academic and life skills necessary to pick up and win the fight for equality in their own community. We know that only when our kids are the owners of this work will we realize our vision of an excellent education for all students.
“While other cities talk and argue about the need for equity in education, Memphis acts.”
-Athena Turner, Teach For America – Memphis Executive Director
The Educational Landscape in Memphis
Since 2006, Teach For America has placed teachers in Memphis classrooms, positively impacting the academic opportunities for thousands of students. Our corps members and alumni are building a movement that is unstoppable and one that fights for kids every day. While we are seeing incredible progress, we still have much work to do. The road ahead will certainly be challenging. We are addressing the greatest domestic challenge of our time, and the solution will require many people working tirelessly together for many years to come. With a singular focus on student achievement, Memphis corps members have made outstanding academic gains year after year. As members of the Memphis regional team, we feel honored to work with such dedicated teachers every day and are proud to play a role in your students’ successes. As a Memphis Corps member, you have the opportunity to not only impact students, but the entire Memphis community. Memphis is full of culture and promise, with lots of opportunities to explore music, entrepreneurship, green spaces, and almost any interest you can imagine.
In 2006, Teach For America – Memphis launched with 48 corps members, a handful of local alumni and four staff members. We came to the community at the behest of then Memphis City Schools’ (MCS) superintendent Dr. Carol Johnson and with the support of local community members and philanthropists,
We continued to bring in a corps of roughly 50 each year from 2006 to 2009 and these teachers were among the most effective across the district. At the invitation of the state in response to our student achievement results, we became Tennessee’s first alternative certification program in 2009.
In the 2009-10 school year, quite a few things put Memphis on a different trajectory. First, our then superintendent, Dr. Kriner Cash, and his team put together a grant to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation for $92 million that would become known as the Teacher Effectiveness Initiative (it has since been renamed the Teacher and Leader Effectiveness work). This act was momentous; in the application itself, the district was incredibly transparent and vulnerable as to how it was doing by announcing that only six percent of students were college ready according to the ACT. Further, the district acknowledged they were only retaining 60 percent of their teaching force after three years and they weren’t able to identify who their top-performing teachers were using student achievement results. The TEI grant was written to implement education reform in MCS through the following strategies:
- Use a common, agreed-upon process to define and measure effective teaching (now known as the TEM Rubric and Score);
- Make smart decisions about who teaches our students;
- Provide better support and compensation to teachers and leaders;
- Improve the surrounding contexts and school climates to foster effective teaching.
The grant was awarded in November 2009 and just a few months later in the winter of 2010, under the leadership of Governor Bredesen, Tennessee was awarded one of the first and largest Race to the Top (RTTT) awards that essentially scaled the TEI principles across the state while also adding the state-wide Achievement School District (ASD) to Tennessee’s tools of reform. When Governor Haslam was elected, he appointed Teach For America alumnus Kevin Huffman (Houston ’92) as the state Commissioner of Education who, in turn, hired Chris Barbic (Houston ’92) to serve as the Superintendent of the ASD.
As part of the RTTT award process, several laws were changed or signed into law to support the state’s application, including ensuring teachers could access their Tennessee Value-Added Assessment System (TVAAS) scores; stipulating that all teachers and principals should be evaluated annually; and insisting teachers’ evaluations should be based on student achievement – with a full 50 percent of the evaluation to consist of student outcomes, 35 percent of which based on TVAAS scores. In the 2010 legislative session, the General Assembly passed even more reform-oriented laws. They reformed teacher tenure laws so that only top-performing teachers were awarded tenure, made it conditional on ongoing performance, and changed the time-period it was awarded from after a third year of teaching to after a fifth. The General Assembly ended collective bargaining and replaced it with collective conferencing, limiting conferencing activities to salary, working conditions, insurance, and other similar topics. Finally, it removed the previous cap on charter schools across the state, eliminated the enrollment restrictions and empowered the ASD as a charter school authorizer.
In many ways, these three actions – the TEI Grant award, the RTTT grant award, and the accompanying reform legislation – were what so many of us had been working toward in our desperation to create momentum for reform. Certainly, the entire landscape shifted (seemingly overnight) and no longer were we questioning whether kids could achieve, but how we were going to come together to ensure they were achieving in every building. It was exciting and every year was full of change, but also full of hope for a better Memphis and a day where we were finally delivering on our promises to our kids.
At the same time that the TEI work, RTTT initiatives and new laws were taking effect, the community also experienced the largest school system merger in American history – only to have five new municipal districts break away and start their own school systems the very next year. In a complicated four-year process, district and school board leaders kept their focus largely on maintaining the implementation of the TEI priorities, such was the conviction about the need for an effective teacher in every classroom and an effective leader in every school building.
During this period, the role of Teach For America – Memphis was to grow as fast as we could to meet local demand and to continue to produce strong teachers and leaders. In the 2014-15 school year, we have 340 corps members, 288 alumni and 50 staff members. For the fifth year in a row, we’ve been named among Tennessee’s top teacher preparation programs in terms of student achievement results. Nearly 90 percent of our alumni are working in education and among them, teaching is the most common profession; additionally, 20 are leading schools in the community and 5 are leading school systems. Today, our scale of impact is remarkably different than it was when we started.
Today, we’re operating in a completely different climate and we are, in many ways, a different Teach For America. Through the changes mentioned above, there is incredible energy and focus on ensuring all kids have an effective teacher – one who is growing their learning by a minimum of one year of growth. As an education community, we haven’t found the full solution – how to hold high standards and accountability for adults while also supporting them to meet these expectations; how to hold adults accountable to student outcomes with imperfect measures and changing standards; how to transform entire buildings’ student achievement on a short time-frame that honors students’ real needs of today. The Memphis story over the last five years has culminated in a community that has focused a ton on inputs – which schools will be in what system; how many charter schools will be operating in our community; what teacher evaluation system we will use to assess performance; how we will compensate and reward strong performing teachers; and how we will develop and support teachers. These inputs are our best guess as to what to modify, change, add, etc. to our efforts in Memphis education to ensure students can live out their potential; at the same time, outcomes for students are not meaningfully different for our kids. While we’ve seen schools work diligently to increase student proficiency, at scale, our kids aren’t moving forward. Still today, a third of kids are coming to our schools not prepared for kindergarten; a third remain proficient in third grade reading and also later in seventh grade math and still only six percent of students are college ready.
We’ve doubled down on the idea that relationships matter – our relationships with corps members, alumni and community leaders and our corps members’ relationships with students and families. We’ve elevated our understanding, awareness and engagement with topics of racism, classism and privilege. And, we’re clear that individual heroic efforts aren’t the path to a radically different reality for the students we love. We’ve embraced a complicated definition of teacher effectiveness, a complicated definition of the factors that impact student achievement and a broader sense of the supports teachers need to give kids the education they deserve.
As a result of all of this reflection, we’ve made quite a few changes to our model.Our expectations of corps members are higher than ever. We expect them to lead students to achieve dramatic academic outcomes; to create cultures in their classrooms that foster joy and a love of learning; to orient as anti-racist, culturally relevant teachers and leaders; to support their students in growing the long-term traits and mindsets that are necessary to support student success for the long-haul; to connect students to opportunities they desperately need and deserve to complement their academic achievement and expand their world-view. These are enormously high expectations for first and even second year teachers.
Get to know Education Champions Initiaves
Elliot Perry, former University of Memphis basketball star and NBA standout, created the Education Champions initiative in 2011 to share stories and inspire action in Memphis City Schools. Perry is a product of the local school system and knows the challenges urban school students face in the classroom and at home.
“My mom had me when she was 15 years old,” Perry told WREG-TV in Memphis. “If there’s one issue in our community that we should be fighting for and advocating for more than any other, positive or negative, it’s education—because it can fix everything.”
The Education Champions Initiative works to change the conversation about education in Memphis by highlighting champions with creative solutions for giving every child a chance at a high quality academic experience. It also encourages individuals to give, mentor, or advocate for the students in the Memphis school system.
Since its launch, ECI has identified 18 Champions as the groups on the frontlines of improving Memphis education. Among these are schools or school systems such as The Soulsville Charter School and KIPP Memphis Collegiate Schools, and organizations including Teach For America, Stand for Children, and The New Teacher Project.
Given the energy of leaders like Elliot Perry and the community of champions gathering around education reform, Teach For America corps members and alumni are part of an exciting effort to create lasting change for the student in Memphis.
Because of its unique history, Memphis is amazingly diverse in its music, politics, food, and more. While Memphis is shaped by its history, Memphis is focused on progressive revitalization and new initiatives that are bringing forth welcome change to the city. Although there are distinct neighborhoods and areas throughout the city, one of the wonderful things about Memphis is that everywhere is equally welcoming. The people and institutions that make Memphis great are ready to welcome you. Here are just some of the places where corps members tend to find homes.
This charming area is home to Overton Park, the Memphis Zoo, and Rhodes College. Quirky coffee houses, ethnic restaurants, and independent art galleries can all be found in the Cooper–Young neighborhood. Houses and apartments for rent tend to be older buildings renovated for modern living but retaining the structural character that makes them unique.
The downtown area features residential options at condominiums, lofts, and apartments that offer convenience and style for those who prefer an urban living environment. Living downtown means being in the heart of the city’s entertainment center, including restaurants, theaters, sports venues, bars, and the lively farmer’s market that runs from late spring through fall.
Mud Island lies west of Downtown and features upscale apartment and townhome living as well as convenience. Most complexes have extras not common in other parts of town, such as pools, tennis courts, and exercise facilities. The island features a grocery store, coffee shop, and restaurants and is only a five minute drive from Downtown Memphis. Residents are primarily graduate students and young professionals.
This area is a commercial and residential powerhouse of the city. A collection of low- to moderate – rise residential buildings can be found here, as well as rental homes. This section of the city is home to many businesses and law firms, as well as the University of Memphis. Many restaurants and shopping centers such as Three Little Pigs BBQ, Casablanca, and Oak Court Mall characterize this location.