Talking in Memphis: When schools and unions team up, students win
As state legislatures and teachers' unions clash over budgets and reforms, Memphis shows that close cooperation of school and union officials can turn failing schools around.
From our posts in Memphis as a deputy schools superintendent and a union leader, we watch with concern as state legislatures and teachers' unions around the country clash over methods of achieving school reform. While both sides make important points about improving education, the tone of the national conversation is serving as a wedge, further widening the historical rift between labor and management. Such strife can only harm efforts at meaningful reform.Skip to next paragraph
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To our colleagues, all of whom want an improved education system but disagree on how to get there, we suggest: Consider Memphis. We have been in your shoes, and we have found a way to work together to effect positive change.
Two years ago, we took a close look at the Memphis City Schools and what we saw was disheartening: Ds and Fs on the state report card, low graduation rates, and an unacceptable number of graduates – merely 6 percent – prepared for college. The MCS have been plagued with this sort of performance for years. But instead of accepting the status quo, we decided on radical change. The Memphis Education Association (the union) and the school administration resolved to join forces in a complete overhaul of our system.
Teachers are key: Fight for funding
It is clear that teachers are the most important factor in children's academic success. Their work is both a science and an art. That's why we sought funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to launch the Teacher Effectiveness Initiative (TEI), which focuses on giving our teachers the tools and support they need to instill children with a love of learning and to increase academic achievement.
We are proud to say we earned that funding and are now putting it to good use. We have also earned considerable support from our community. To date, area philanthropies and businesses have chipped in $21 million to help us implement this transformative plan. Members of these organizations – along with representatives from the administration and the union – also serve on an advisory board, which connects our reform efforts with community advocacy and ensures TEI's sustainability.
Honest disagreements, honest teamwork
To be sure, we face hurdles. As is often the case with union and management, we have honest disagreements over issues such as how much emphasis should be placed on student test scores and how to fairly compensate teachers while staying within the limits of our budget. (TEI funding can only be used in certain ways, and, as with districts nationwide, we are grappling with shrinking budgets.)