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.

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.)

But each week, we sit down at the same table and work through these concerns. Of the six TEI executive board members, two represent the union. And union representatives chair all three TEI working groups, making recommendations on reforming the tenure process, changing the way we evaluate and measure teacher performance, and how best to support and retain our educators. We are plotting the district's future together.

Early indicators of progress

We are cheered by early indicators of progress: The state of Tennessee is relying heavily on our framework for evaluating teachers. To date, 258 teachers representing 115 of our 190 schools have become TEI ambassadors and are enlisting the support of their colleagues. We have 800 student envoys participating in TEI workshops and encouraging their classmates to excel academically. Online and after-school courses aimed at high-risk students have helped raise graduation rates by almost 9 percent. And for the first time ever – aided by a district-wide writing program – our students earned straight A's in writing on a state assessment.

All of these successes make for a great start. We are confident TEI can further transform our schools into true centers of student learning, where excuses for failure are neither made nor accepted. It can ensure teachers are recognized as the professionals they are. And by improving the education we offer our students, TEI will help revitalize our community economically and culturally.

A common goal makes cooperation possible

Recently, the voters of Memphis decided to unite Memphis City Schools with the Shelby County district. We have much work to do to prepare for this merger, but it won't sidetrack our efforts to better serve our students by empowering our teachers.

We appeal to our counterparts in unions and management across the country to join us by making their school reforms collaborative. We know how fortunate we are to have the support of the Gates Foundation, our community, and federal Race to the Top funding. But we began our united efforts with nothing more than the realization that change was as necessary as it was inevitable.

IN PICTURES: Turnaround schools

A host of union leaders and administrators from school districts across the country gathered at a recent forum on collaborative reform hosted by US Education Secretary Arne Duncan, which bodes well for the future of public education. We know many school districts will have a tough time making reforms, and we sympathize. But we are also excited for them. Because in setting a common goal, and working together to achieve that goal, all of us have the chance to achieve greatness.

Even more important, we can offer a shot at greatness to our students.

Ken Foster is the executive director of the Memphis Education Association. Irving Hamer Jr. is deputy superintendent of academic operations, technology, and innovation for the Memphis City Schools.

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