A Win for Great Teaching in Memphis

Changing policy is hard. Even when you finally get the policy changes you want, implementing them so they produce their intended effects is even harder. That’s the challenge in Memphis now, after a decade of hard work and a new, groundbreaking set of human capital policies that govern teacher hiring, bumping, surplus transfers and layoffs.

When TNTP first began working with Memphis City Schools a decade ago, we encountered a district whose labor contract and budget timelines helped delay 80 percent of hiring until July and put surplus teachers in schools without regard for the school’s needs or principals’ wishes. Despite being in a state with a decade of value-added data on teachers’ performance in core subjects, that critical information was largely ignored.

Making a difference in Memphis is deeply important to me. I have been a Memphis resident for the past 11 years, and while I am a transplant, my family and I have come to think of Memphis as our hometown. When I first encountered the district, I was overwhelmed by the depth of its problems and unsure how they could ever be sorted out, but I was buoyed by the strong commitment from the business and philanthropic community.

With a strong vision on the part of the district’s leadership and a lot of hard work, much has changed since those days. The district made incremental progress over the years, especially when it came to hiring new teachers. More recently, a merger with neighboring Shelby County Schools, as well as the legislative framework created through Race to the Top, afforded a unique opportunity to offer a new vision of human capital management to school board members and the broader community.

The new policies, adopted in March, are a quantum leap forward. Critical decisions will be based on a teacher’s effectiveness above all else. Staffing decisions will be based not on seniority, but on a teacher’s performance. Hiring must be made with “mutual consent” – where teachers and their prospective principals jointly agree that they are a good match. And teachers who are transferred out of a school and cannot find a position elsewhere in the district will no longer receive a salary in perpetuity.  In Memphis, great teaching will matter like never before.

The policies are an outgrowth of the district’s Teacher Effectiveness Initiative, which was funded by the Gates Foundation to the tune of $95 million. At its heart is the acknowledgment that there are significant differences between teachers.  Some are more adept than others at helping students learn. The work has helped the district to differentiate excellent teaching from good, good from fair, and fair from poor. One of its most powerful symbols is the “I teach. I am. . . Irreplaceable” ad campaign, a collection of billboards and advertisements with images like the one above, which can be seen across the city, publicly lauding its highest-performing teachers. (It makes me proud that the campaign borrows a term from our research.)

There remains much work to be done. But right now, we’re celebrating a success 10 years in the making. These policies mean that classrooms will be filled with the best, most effective teachers who will make a difference right away for thousands of kids in Memphis and Shelby County. As an adopted Memphian, it’s a success story that I wish more people were hearing about.

Imali Ariyarathne, seventh-grade teacher at Langston Hughes Academy, stands in front of her students while introducing them to the captivating world of science

Imali Ariyarathne, seventh-grade teacher at Langston Hughes Academy, introduces her students to the captivating world of science.

About TNTP

TNTP is the nation’s leading research, policy, and consulting organization dedicated to transforming America’s public education system, so that every generation thrives.

Today, we work side-by-side with educators, system leaders, and communities across 39 states and over 6,000 districts nationwide to reach ambitious goals for student success.

Yet the possibilities we imagine push far beyond the walls of school and the education field alone. We are catalyzing a movement across sectors to create multiple pathways for young people to achieve academic, economic, and social mobility.

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