Educators Gather In Memphis To Push Tough Standards

Feb 11, 2013

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The job description of Tennessee teachers has changed in the past few years. As the result of education reform work in the state, half of every teacher’s yearly evaluation is now based on quantitative data like student test scores and graduation rates. And more changes are ahead as Tennessee implements a tougher test aligned with the national benchmarks known as Common Core Standards.

Four districts in Tennessee—Johnson, Putnam, Trousdale County Schools, and Lexington City schools—have changed the way they pay teachers as well as the way they evaluate them, and now offer higher pay to teachers whose students perform well on the state test.

Memphis City Schools, the state's largest school district, planned to overhaul its pay system at the same time, but delayed those plans to further study alternate salary schedules. Memphis does offer some top-performing teachers bonuses, but for most teachers in Memphis, and across the state, these changes to their jobs have come without any change in the way they are paid.

Peter Kannam is a managing partner at America Achieves, which advocates for higher standards on state tests. He was in Memphis over the weekend for an education conference organized by his group. 

“I would love teachers across the board to get more compensation,” said Kannam, but he added that’s no reason to delay the implementation of more difficult tests. “Our world has changed, and we really need to have a higher bar if we are going to have our kids prepared for college and actually participate in the new economy.”

The America Achieves Education Reform Conference in Memphis was attended by 100 teachers, principals, and administrators. Participants hailed from Los Angeles, Boston, and many places in between. Eleven were from Memphis. All were selected because of their strong job performance and willingness to advocate for tougher standards on state tests. 

When Tennessee is finished implementing the new standards in the spring of 2015, students will face a test with more essays and problem solving questions. “In the writing particularly, looking at non-fiction texts, so looking at original documents like the Declaration of Independence, or Martin Luther King Jr’s speech, and drawing conclusions from there,” explained Kannam. “It’s going to be much more complicated texts to form conclusions.”

Of course higher standards don’t mean much if you don’t have someone to teach them. As the conference's first day drew to a close on Friday, Chris Barbic, Superintendent of Tennessee’s Achievement School District, showed attendees Teach 901's website, a national campaign designed to attract educators to Memphis, and asked them to help brainstorm ideas for how to bring teachers to the city. 

Currently Barbic is responsible for three schools in Memphis, and he has handed three more schools under his purview (two in Memphis, one in Nashville) over to charter school operators to run.

“There’s a scarcity of talent,” Barbic said.

The teachers Barbic employs have committed to a further challenge—to take schools that are among the bottom five percent in the state and move them to the top 25 percent in the next five years. Their success reaching that goal will be measured by how well their students score on state tests. 

Barbic predicts that as standards toughen, good teachers will be in high demand across the state, but especially in Memphis, where 69 of the state’s 83 lowest performing schools are located.

“In Memphis, in time, if you are a good teacher in the city, you are going to become a rock star overnight—we’re going to want to hire you, Gestalt is going to want to hire you, KIPP is going to want to hire you, the district is going to want to hire you,” Barbic said.

During the brainstorming session, Brittany Clark, an English teacher from Middle College High School, a Memphis City School, suggested to Barbic that an environment that allows for more family time might motivate her and other educators to leave the schools they are currently teaching in.

“Work/ life balance—that’s a head-scratcher,” Barbic said. The school day for Barbic’s district is an hour and a half longer than that of the Memphis City Schools, and Barbic said all of his teacher have committed to doing whatever it takes to reach the achievement district’s ambitious goals. “We’re looking for people right now who are builders—that’s a different type of person,” Barbic said.

Barbic told the group that his interviews emphasized hard work over pedagogy. Barbic said he spoke with applicants three times. The first two times he said he didn’t talk about teaching philosophies or techniques at all, but focused instead on the extended hours and extra work that would be expected. “I just tried to paint the absolute worst picture of what it is going to be like,” Barbic said. “If they came back for the third conversation I said, ‘Okay, now let’s talk about instruction.’”