Shelby County Schools

Shelby County Schools makes academic gains, pushes faster growth

PHOTO: Tajuana Cheshier/Chalkbeat TN
Sharpe Elementary students share what they've learned during summer vocabulary camp.

Shelby County’s students managed to slightly bump their test scores up last year, according to district-wide results released Wednesday. That’s despite a tumultuous year that included the historic merging of Memphis City and Shelby County School districts, massive layoffs and significant change in board and administrative leadership.

“If you think about what the staff has been through with the challenges of the merger and separation (of the district) and the huge challenges related to that, they deserve a pat on the back for continuing to educate our children and improve their performance with all of the distractions that we’ve had going on,” said William White, chief of planning and accountability.

But the Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program, or TCAP, scores showed, as the district fractures into seven districts and undergoes dramatic reform, education leaders have a long way to go to catch Memphis-area students up to their peers across the state. District leaders said Wednesday they will shift their focus this year from operational efforts to improving teacher quality.

“When we look at the sheer rates of proficient and advanced, we’re not satisfied with where we are,” White said.

Wednesday’s results only detailed district-level data. School-level scores will be released later in August. The state used combined test information from legacy Memphis City and legacy Shelby County in 2012-13 to establish this year’s target goals that the merged district needed to meet.

Shelby County Schools met 10 of the 11 academic goals set by the state in several areas including literacy and math, but missed its graduation rate goal by 3.7 percent with 73.7 percent of its students graduating last year.

Shelby County saw growth in all subject areas except for high school English III and third through eighth grade math which each dipped a percentage point.  Only a quarter of students scored proficient or advanced in high school English III and a little more than 41 percent of third through eighth grade students were proficient or advanced in math.

Only 41 percent of the district’s third through eighth graders are reading at a proficient or advanced level.

Shelby County Schools saw the largest improvement in high school Algebra I which increased from 46 percent to 54 percent.

But Memphis-area students’ scores were far lower than the state’s average scores.

For example, around 47 percent of Memphis-area high school students scored proficient or advanced on the state’s biology tests compared to 63 percent of the state’s average district. However, biology and science are not subjects that count against districts in the state’s accountability measure.

Last year, the district’s leaders attempted to merge two districts after Memphis City schools gave up its charter, becoming one of the largest districts in the country and bringing in a slate of new leaders. The effort failed when six municipalities petitioned the state to create their own separate districts. That sparked a lawsuit and dramatic budget cuts that lead to massive layoffs and school closings.

Meanwhile, several schools in Memphis were taken over by the state-run Achievement School District after chronically-low dismal test results.  Several more schools in Memphis could likely be taken over by the state over the next several years.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson II said Wednesday he was glad to see the district’s gains outpace statewide gains but was not satisfied.

“We are very pleased to know we’re trending in the right direction,” Hopson said. “However, we cannot rest with slight gains; we must press forward with a more aggressive agenda that increases student achievement at a more rapid rate.”

In the upcoming school year, which begins on Monday,  the district will focus more on improving literacy and college and career readiness.

“We believe the best way to address (improvement) is to focus on teacher and leader effectiveness at every grade level,” White said.  “Our focus is making sure that we have highly effective teachers, and that we provide support for teachers and leaders who are not as effective as we’d like.”

If a student is not reading well in the third grade, White says, the district has to work with parents to intervene.

“We need (parents) to help develop their child’s language skills through conversations and their literacy skills by reading with them,” he said.

Hopson recently set the district’s long-range goals earlier this year to have 80 percent of its students graduating “college-and career-ready,” 90 percent of students graduating and 100 percent of college- and career-ready students heading to postsecondary opportunities by 2025.

Hopson also hired former Memphis City Schools leader Carol Johnson to help guide the district in making decisions and in selecting its next chief of academics.

And he vowed to the families of students at several schools he shuttered last year that they would have additional education opportunities at their new schools.  One of the opportunities Shelby County is piloting this year is blended learning, which provides students with laptops to use in class and at home to continue studying and receive academic support.  The district spent $5.5 million to place the program in 16 schools.

Contact Tajuana Cheshier at [email protected] and (901) 730-4013.

Follow us on Twitter: @TajuanaCheshier@chalkbeattn.

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Detroit Story Booth

Why one woman thinks special education reform can’t happen in isolation

PHOTO: Colin Maloney
Sharon Kelso, student advocate from Detroit

When Sharon Kelso’s kids and grandkids were still in school, they’d come home and hear the same question from her almost every day: “How was your day in school?” One day, a little over a decade ago, Kelso’s grandson gave a troubling answer. He felt violated when security guards at his school conducted a mass search of students’ personal belongings.

Kelso, a Cass Tech grad, felt compelled to act. Eventually, she became the plaintiff in two cases which outlawed unreasonable mass searches of students in Detroit’s main district.

Fast forward to August, when her three great-nephews lost both their mother and father in the space of a week and Kelso became their guardian. Today, she asks them the same question she has asked two generations of Detroit students: “How was your day in school?”

The answers she receives still deeply inform her advocacy work.

Watch the full video here:

– Colin Maloney

First Person

Why the phrase ‘with fidelity’ is an affront to good teaching

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

“With fidelity” are some of the most damaging words in education.

Districts spend a ton of money paying people to pick out massively expensive, packaged curriculums, as if every one of a thousand classrooms needs the exact same things. Then officials say, over and over again, that they must be implemented “with fidelity.” What they mean is that teachers better not do anything that would serve their students’ specific needs.

When that curriculum does nothing to increase student achievement, it is not blamed. The district person who found it and purchased it is never blamed. Nope. They say, “Well, the teachers must not have been implementing it with fidelity.”

It keeps happening because admitting that schools are messy and students are human and teaching is both creative and artistic would also mean you have to trust teachers and let them have some power. Also, there are some really crappy teachers out there, and programs for everyone are often meant to push that worst-case-scenario line a little higher.

And if everyone’s doing just what they’re supposed to, we’ll get such good, clean numbers, and isn’t that worth a few thousand more dollars?

I was talking with a friend recently, a teacher at an urban school on the East Coast. He had been called to task by his principal for splitting his kids into groups to offer differentiated math instruction based on students’ needs. “But,” the principal said, “did the pacing guide say to differentiate? You need to trust the system.”

I understand the desire to find out if a curriculum “works.” But I don’t trust anyone who can say “trust the system” without vomiting. Not when the system is so much worse than anything teachers would put together.

Last year, my old district implemented Reading Plus, an online reading program that forces students to read at a pace determined by their scores. The trainers promised, literally promised us, that there wasn’t a single reading selection anywhere in the program that could be considered offensive to anyone. God knows I never learned anything from a book that made me feel uncomfortable!

Oh, and students were supposed to use this program — forced-paced reading of benign material followed by multiple-choice questions and more forced-pace reading — for 90 minutes a week. We heard a lot about fidelity when the program did almost nothing for students (and, I believe quite strongly, did far worse than encouraging independent reading of high-interest books for 90 minutes a week would have done).

At the end of that year, I was handed copies of next year’s great adventure in fidelity. I’m not in that district any longer, but the whole district was all switching over to SpringBoard, another curriculum, in language arts classes. On came the emails about implementing with fidelity and getting everyone on the same page. We were promised flexibility, you know, so long as we also stuck to the pacing guide of the workbook.

I gave it a look, I did, because only idiots turn down potential tools. But man, it seemed custom-built to keep thinking — especially any creative, critical thought from either students or teachers — to a bare minimum.

I just got an email from two students from last year. They said hi, told me they missed creative writing class, and said they hated SpringBoard, the “evil twin of Reading Plus.”

That district ran out of money and had to cut teachers (including me) at the end of the year. But if they hadn’t, I don’t think I would have lasted long if forced to teach from a pacing guide. I’m a good teacher. Good teachers love to be challenged and supported. They take feedback well, but man do we hate mandates for stuff we know isn’t best for the kids in our room.

Because, from inside a classroom full of dynamic, chaotic brilliance;

from a classroom where that kid just shared that thing that broke all of our hearts;

from a classroom where that other kid figured out that idea they’ve been working on for weeks;

from that classroom where that other kid, who doesn’t know enough of the language, hides how hard he works to keep up and still misses things;

and from that classroom where one kid isn’t sure if they trust you yet, and that other kid trusts you too much, too easily, because their bar had been set too low after years of teachers that didn’t care enough;

from inside that classroom, it’s impossible to trust that anyone else has a better idea than I do about what my students need to do for our next 50 minutes.

Tom Rademacher is a teacher living in Minneapolis who was named Minnesota’s Teacher of the Year in 2014. His book, “It Won’t Be Easy: An Exceedingly Honest (and Slightly Unprofessional) Love Letter to Teaching,” was published in April. He can be found on Twitter @mrtomrad and writes on, where this post first appeared.