One to Watch: Memphis iZone

Some days in Memphis, it’s hard to keep track of all the changes.

The city and surrounding county recently completed a merger. The unified district adopted new policies that put teacher effectiveness at the center of virtually all school management decisions. Plus, the district competes with the State’s Achievement School district to see who can turn around historically low-performing schools fastest, and teachers throughout the state are still getting used to a new evaluation system that includes student voices and test scores in their evaluations. Now, they hear feedback on their performance throughout the school year, rather than twice a decade, as before.

It might sound like too much, too fast, but we have seen that the changes support one another. For example, local, state and federal policies are working together to help school leaders innovate in a cluster of turnaround schools.

We work with the district in the Innovation Zone: a group of seven historically low-performing city schools awarded $14.7 million in federal support to put new staff, curriculum and technology programs in place. It is a district version of the state’s Achievement School District, which is working to turn schools around within five years. But the iZone has an even more ambitious goal: schools in the iZone are in the bottom 5 percent of student achievement rankings state wide, and they are required to move student achievement into the top 25 percent within three years, or face being shut down or taken over by the state.

One year in, students at these schools made double-digit gains on state tests in mathematics, scientific reasoning and literacy. (For example, at Ford Elementary, math passing rates increased by 20 percent last year.) Teachers are choosing to apply for jobs in the iZone. The number of schools is set to nearly double to 13 this fall. How are the teachers and leaders doing it?

The short answer is: they have gone all-in and focused on building strong new cultures in these schools, including by assembling the right teams for the job:

  • Top-Tier Teachers: All seven schools re-staffed last year, and no more than 40 percent of teachers stayed in any one building. Experienced hires were required to have earned one of the top two ratings on the state’s new teacher evaluation system and pass a demanding interview, which included teaching a sample lesson. Teachers were also required to commit to three years teaching in the iZone, and were awarded bonuses of $1,500 to do so. In addition, iZone schools shared six content-area coaches, and high-performing retired master teachers from Memphis City Schools were retained to build targeted professional development plans for teachers.
  • Turnaround-Minded Leaders: Almost every iZone school leader was new to his or her school, and each one was required to have a proven track record of high student achievement. They also had to pass through a rigorous, research-based interview process that tested for 10 competencies considered critical for successful turnaround principals. Then, they were granted full autonomy over their buildings, working under a new regional superintendent with turnaround experience, and instructed to use student assessment and teacher evaluation data to create and execute individual school improvement plans. For example, one elementary school focused on compartmentalized and gender-based learning, while a middle school focused on STEM curriculum and technology integration.
  • Strong Instructional Cultures: Teachers in each school participated in TNTP’s Instructional Culture Insight survey, and principals were required to implement extensive action plans to address areas of improvement in at least one management practice. Each of the seven schools saw progress in their overall score in just one semester, indicating that they were building the sort of professional cultures that are more likely to retain strong teachers.

What’s clear to us and the district is that these changes could not have worked so quickly and to such strong effect without the other, long-simmering innovations underway throughout Memphis and Tennessee as a whole. Without a new teacher evaluation system, for example, it would have been impossible to differentiate among veteran candidates based on their performance. And without hiring autonomy and the end of “forced placement” of transfers or new hires, school leaders would not have been able to build the right teams.

As the second year of the iZone begins, there are some challenges ahead. Student achievement still has far to go—despite 20-point increase in the math pass rate at Ford, for example, two-thirds of students remain below grade level on the state math exam.

The district continues to struggle with inflated teacher ratings, perhaps the most difficult culture change it has faced. For example, some teachers on the top of the evaluation scale elsewhere didn’t perform at expected high levels, struggling with differentiated instruction, for example. To counter this, principals are being coached throughout the district to more accurately rate teachers—work that is in its early stages.

And as with any grant program, there’s a question about what happens when the funded period ends. The changes made now must be long-term investments in the iZone that can pay dividends for years. That will allow schools in the iZone to not only turn themselves around, but forge ahead on a long and successful straight road to success.

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.

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