Memphis district embraces one-year extension of Gates award as crucial to teacher improvement work

Shelby County Schools has received a one-year extension from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, giving the cash-strapped district more time to use the roughly $11 million left in a gift awarded beginning in 2009 to bolster teacher quality efforts.

The Gates money — a pledge of up to $90 million over seven years — was to be spent by the district by June 30 under the initial terms of the award. With the extension granted last week, the district can stretch the remaining dollars until mid-2017.

That’s good news for Tennessee’s largest school system as it embarks on a particularly painful budget season that has the superintendent and his staff struggling to address a projected deficit of $86 million next school year.

The extension will ensure that the district’s Gates-funded work to overhaul the way it hires, trains and supports teachers and principals will not be sacrificed as the school system tries to balance its $950 million budget for 2016-17.

“This news couldn’t have come at a better time,” Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said in a statement issued on Tuesday. “This funding won’t fill our budget gap, but it will allow us to invest more in our teachers and school leaders.”

Without the investment, school officials said the district would not have been able to supply teachers and principals with professional development and coaching support next school year.


The grant is strictly earmarked for improving teacher and principal quality and will be used to coach teachers and principals and build a student data system that helps schools more effectively track student performance and foster stronger ties between the schools and community to improve student learning.

The Gates money cannot be used to pay for other programs that Hopson has proposed cutting back on, including special education services, the district’s CLUE program for gifted students and its school turnaround initiative known as the Innovation Zone.

The extension is a rare move by the philanthropic giant, which has spent more than $700 million nationally on teacher quality-related programs since 2008. Some of that work, such as an even larger Gates investment in schools in Tampa, Fla., has been scrapped as those districts wrangled with shrinking budgets and teachers unions opposed to the new evaluations and performance pay incentivized by the Gates investment.

The Memphis district was one of the first to garner a Gates award aimed at teacher improvement efforts. The gift spurred the district to launch its Teacher and Leadership Effectiveness initiative to address longstanding failures to recruit, develop and retain talent for schools and classrooms.

Since 2009, Shelby County Schools has spent a total of $173 million on the initiative: more than $74 million from the Gates award; $82 million from the district; and more than $17 million from local philanthropists.

District leaders say the investment is beginning to produce positive results, while acknowledging that there’s more work to do. That’s why the extension is critical as leaders seek to protect the initiative from cuts anticipated from next year’s budget shortfall.

Cherokee Elementary School Principal Rodney Rowan coaches and observes fourth-grade teacher Elizabeth Frison. Coaching and supporting teachers is among the key elements of Shelby County Schools’ teacher improvement work funded by the Gates Foundation. (Ruma Kumar)

Among the payoffs: In school surveys, more than half of teachers in Shelby County Schools report feeling happier and more supported than ever. Student test scores are rising marginally in most schools, while increasing most dramatically in the district’s lowest performing schools in the iZone.

Among the challenges: Districtwide, barely a third of elementary and middle schoolers in Memphis are reading on grade level, according to state test results. Less than half of those students are proficient in math on those same tests. In high schools, only three-quarters of seniors graduate on time, and they don’t earn high enough scores on college entrance exams to show that they will be successful in post-secondary programs.

District leaders say improving the quality of the district’s teachers and leaders is foundational to transforming the school system.

By this summer, the district will have spent nearly $74 million on performance bonuses, teacher coaches and training courses, plus another $77 million to add full-time staff to oversee the new principal and teacher training, principal coaches, communications consultants and an online system to organize the sudden flood of data the district has collected about its human capital.

Among other strategies: overhauling hiring processes to recruit higher-quality teacher applicants; developing a rubric that rates teachers’ performance and their ability to improve student learning and performance on state tests; training principals to use the new tool and student test scores to make decisions about hiring and firing teachers; rejecting long-held customs of promotion and pay based on tenure and experience; seeking to move the strongest teachers and principals to schools with the lowest state test scores and the highest-need students; and using principals and teachers with strong track records of raising student achievement to coach and mentor their colleagues.