‘Opportunity Lost’ author on poverty, race and the biggest challenges in transforming Memphis schools

In Memphis, Marcus Pohlmann has become the go-to guy for anyone who wants to understand the history of education in Tennessee’s largest city, particularly related to the impact of race and poverty on the city’s schools. A professor of political science at Rhodes College, Pohlmann has written extensively on the topic. He is the author of “Opportunity Lost,” a 2008 book that analyzes the former Memphis City Schools before and after desegregation.

Pohlmann, 64, has been teaching at Rhodes since 1986 and was chairman of the Department of Political Science for 16 of those years. Next spring, he is teaching a class on urban education policy.

In a recent Q&A with Chalkbeat, he discusses the 2013 merger of the city and county school systems, the subsequent split of six suburban municipal districts, the growing charter school sector, the critical need for pre-school education, and whether current school turnaround efforts are hitting the mark. Here are the highlights.

Describe the biggest change or shift you’ve seen for public schools in Shelby County over the last 10 years?

Consolidation and fallout is the obvious answer. However, the reality … turned out to be just a reconstruction of the old country schools and the old Memphis City Schools. (See Chalkbeat’s in-depth coverage of the merger of legacy Memphis City Schools and legacy Shelby County Schools, as well as the municipality split). In other words, what is now Shelby County Schools is pretty much the old Memphis City Schools. And the municipalities are the old Shelby County Schools. So, even though the most obvious change is the consolidation and the fallout, the biggest change in my estimation is the diversification of alternatives.

Between the Achievement School District, the iZone, the municipalities, the charters, Shelby County Schools and all of the private (schools) — that’s quite an array from a system that even 20 years ago was just city, county and private. I won’t call it school choice, because it’s not a choice for most kids, but it is a diversification. Sometimes, we think that if we just make the options available, then we have a school choice situation. But for kids who don’t have tuition or transportation, we’re kidding ourselves.

What’s the biggest challenge facing public schools in Memphis today?

In the suburbs, you’re trying to find ways to provide enough honors and AP classes to keep already reasonably privileged, educated kids stimulated and performing. In the city, you’re talking about a disproportionate number of people who come out of low-income circumstances … (and need to become) school-ready. Ages 0-4 remains the most crucial education period, and the most crucial education challenge we have. We can tinker all we want with what to do with kids K-12, but they are still going to drop out and fall through the cracks if they come to kindergarten two years behind in reading ability. It’s just going to follow them all the way through. The reality is that schools can only do so much for these kids, particularly if they arrive significantly behind. It’s been too convenient to assume that teachers can educate everybody equally no matter what deficits they bring when they walk in the door. Schools can’t be social workers, nurses, teachers, guidance counselors and do all of that at the same time. So, we’ve got to start talking more about early childhood education.

Can these various challenges be overcome and, if so, how?

Early Headstart and Headstart is what needs to be thought of as a solution for curbing the number of kids who struggle, drop out or aren’t college-ready. We have to get more kids in preschool and reach them before they ever walk through the door of an elementary school to overcome those big urban education dilemmas. Transportation could also be a solution. There are charter schools or alternative schools out there with specialized education programs that struggling students can benefit from; but if they don’t have the transportation to get there, then it doesn’t benefit them. In a city like Memphis with a very minimal transportation system, if you’re not providing free transportation to these kids, some of those options will never be options for them.

What are your thoughts and observations about recent education reform efforts in Shelby County, particularly related to the Achievement School District but also to the iZone within Shelby County Schools? Are these efforts working, not working, sluggish, on point, misguided?

"We can tinker all we want with what to do with kids K-12, but they are still going to drop out and fall through the cracks if they come to kindergarten two years behind in reading ability."

Marcus Pohlmann

Well, we can’t talk about the ASD without talking about charter schools. Charters have become the bane of many in the teaching profession. A lot of people worry about charters, ASD and the school choice movement because they’re afraid that in the end, they are going to water down and kill universal public education. It doesn’t have to, and it probably won’t. One of the things that the ASD, charters and the iZone all have in common is that they move us a step toward individualizing education. It’s allowing schools in a particular area to operate in a manner that most closely meets the needs of those particular kids. Moving away from a one-size-fits-all formula and allowing flexibility at a school level is a step in the right direction.

My problem is that it’s still not getting to the heart of the matter, which is your 0-4 years-old-age group. There’s only so much the iZone or ASD or anybody is going to be able to do with kids who come in with virtually no mental stimulation in the first four years of life. Now you’re asking teachers to correct all that four years later after the brain’s already formed and behavioral patterns are already set. Sure, they can do something, but they’re fighting an uphill battle. Attention on K-12 and innovation is good. But it’s not going to get to the heart of the problem, which is ages 0-4.

How do recent efforts to turn around Shelby County schools compare with past efforts in the district?

What we’ve seen in last 10 years is much more extensive than what we had seen prior. Because of Race to the Top, money from the Gates Foundation and state involvement, we are all in in terms of school reform, for better or for worse. We’re doing much more intensive experimentation than ever before. I worry that at the end of all this, whether that’s at the end of the Race to the Top-driven ASD program or not, the numbers aren’t going to move very much and people are going to throw up their hands and say there’s nothing we can do. Again, it’s because we’re not getting at the heart, which is pre-kindergarten. We’re experimenting and playing with many different approaches with kids in the K-12 window. We’ll see. Hopefully we’ll learn from it and various programs will share their information. What’s working in the iZone will be adopted in charters and by the ASD and so on. As a student of politics, I’m not 100 percent sure that’s going to happen. There’s a tendency in any bureaucracy for people to hoard their own information and not share it. It’s going to take astute leadership.

Enrollment declines and fluctuations have been a huge challenge in stabilizing Shelby County Schools and the ASD in the wake of the merger and the ASD’s entrance into the mix. Do you see the student population stabilizing?  Are policymakers making the right moves to address these challenges?

Will the floor continue to fall out from the Shelby County numbers? No. I think there will be a floor. Lower-income students typically don’t have a choice but to go to neighborhood schools within the SCS system. And I’m not convinced the ASD options will be there 10 years from now when the Race to the Top flavor of the month disappears. The bigger challenge for SCS is how to remain attractive to kids who do have choices. That’s really what I was hoping would happen in consolidation. I thought, how many times does a school system get to start from scratch? How many times does it get a complete do-over? We can look around the nation at best practices. We can rebuild this county-wide school system state of the art. And of course, that didn’t quite happen. If we really did that effectively, we would have public schools like White Station (High School) as an option that would be pulling back kids from the private school system — that the public schools would be just as attractive, if not more so. There’s been talk of need for another high school in midtown or downtown to meet some of movement of population back into those areas. What about an exclusively college-prep high school that you would have to test into and have to maintain grades to stay in? If done right, a lot of kids going to mediocre private high schools would run to that in a heartbeat.

How significant are poverty and race in understanding and improving the educational landscape in Memphis?

If you look in the metros, you’ll find high-achieving black students. You’ll find high-achieving black students in Shelby County. It’s not just race, but it is clearly poverty. The bigger issue is poverty. It tears at school readiness, it tears at brain development, it tears at transportation to take advantage of options. It tears at parents’ ability to provide a home environment that’s educationally rich.

The municipality split garnered attention with lawsuits from Shelby County and the city of Memphis that the split was racially motivated. What do you think were the main factors driving the split?

I live in (the Memphis bedroom community of) Cordova, so I went around to the various forums during consolidation. Lived through it, watched it. (I saw) a couple of things going on. I don’t want to play down race, but part of it was resentment to the process. People in the suburbs felt secure that (Shelby County Schools) would always be available to them, thought it was their school system, would always be their school system, (that) we could never have consolidation without their vote. But we did, because the city gave up its charter.

"I think what’s going on is that both black and white parents in the suburbs don’t want their children going to school with poor black kids. "

Marcus Pohlmann

Part of the rapid switch to the metro alternative was a knee-jerk anger at the fact they were left out of that process. If cooler heads had prevailed, and they would have given it even five years, I think they would have found that with decentralization nothing would have really changed in those old SCS schools. They just would have been under a broader umbrella. But the minute that consolidation vote came down, they were headed for the door. I’ll attribute that, at least in part, to some of the leadership and some of the lack of leadership in the suburbs. I understand it’s easy to say that when your kids aren’t in school. When you’re doing a five-year gamble with your kid’s education, that does up the ante. But they could have exacted guarantees. There were ways to do this to let it play out, (to) see if it didn’t actually develop into a better situation.

They were headed to the exits the minute that vote came down, and no one stepped up to stop it. I think saying it was racially based is an overstatement. Racially tinged, sure, but there are black kids in those schools. I think what’s going on is that both black and white parents in the suburbs don’t want their children going to school with poor black kids. Because they have stereotypes — poor, black, crime, bad language skills, teen pregnancy, all the problems associated with the inner city that people in the suburbs have run away from. And I think it’s more low-income black kids.

What is the biggest challenge facing these smaller municipal districts as they try to establish themselves?

Money. The bill to build a quality school system is just going to keep going up and up. The operating costs, the capital improvement and construction costs (are) going to keep going up. And if their populations grow, (it’s) going to go up even faster. Way more expensive than they were led to believe.

Overall, do you see the six municipal districts becoming successful school systems?

I think Collierville and Germantown will be successful because they have the money and they will spend what they have to spend. To be attractive public schools options. Bartlett, Arlington and Lakeland, jury’s out. I think there may be a limit to what they can spend. I don’t think Millington is going to make it. Millington does not have the money. Maybe they can get Bartlett to merge with them. Clear battle going on at Lakeland and Arlington because they weren’t big enough to begin with. In the short term, there will be some effort to pool resources. If they have an ESL program in Bartlett, they don’t need one in Arlington and Lakeland. Then (they’re) just moving closer and closer to old (legacy) Shelby County Schools. The question is: Are the two wealthiest districts going to be interested in helping the others out? At one point, I would have predicted that in five years, they would have reconstructed the old county system by merging the six metros. But I’m not so sure Germantown and Collierville are going to be that interested in jumping back in bed with Bartlett and Millington.

Long term, it’s hard to predict. I do think that some of these metro districts are going to have to merge to be viable. And even if they do, they’re going to have to convince their populations to spend a whole lot more on education than they are now. Those property taxes are going to go up.


Editor’s Note: Each month, Chalkbeat conducts a Q&A interview with a different leader, innovator, influential thinker or hero across Tennessee’s education community. We invite our readers to email Chalkbeat your suggestions for future subjects to maldrich@chalkbeat.org.