With their low graduation rates, insufficient student retention, and sliding test scores, some Memphis schools are among the worst in Tennessee. In an attempt to improve them, the state has wrested control from local school boards and placed the schools in a special state-run district called the Achievement School District. This special district was created with funding from the U.S Department of Education’s Race to the Top, a school-reform competition.
Tennessee is the latest state to invest in such a program for failing schools.
In the 1990s, New Jersey began running Newark's schools. Louisiana created the Recovery School District in 2003. This year, Michigan followed suit. Virginia lawmakers are also looking at a similar district for that state's failing schools.
At the heart of the program are charter schools that allow for intense student testing, performance pay for teachers, long school days and no teacher tenure. The district also incorporates recruits from Teach for America.
The Memphis district’s website states, “Proving the Possible by moving the bottom 5% of schools in Tennessee to the top 25% within five years.” Teacher unions have criticized the district, and some parents have complained about the loss of neighborhood schools.
Race has also become an issue with critics who point out there are not enough black teachers in the district. And other critics say the schools are simply a small hub for the rich. Last month The Walton Family Foundation gave $1 million to fund training for four school leaders interested in running charters in the Achievement School District.
In January, Republican Governor Bill Haslam visited the Memphis district and said the program was changing the archaic methods of teaching as well as the roles of schools
“A lot of it is about giving more autonomy,” he said at the time. “It’s about letting principals in school buildings and teachers in the classroom make more decisions because they have a better sense of how to do that than we do on Capitol Hill.”
The Achievement School District measures success with four tests for students throughout the school year. Haslam said the district was already seeing kindergarteners beginning to read at second-grade levels.
The state has high hopes for their innovative districts, and it isn't shy in its bragging. The district website states: "Memphis is Teacher Town, USA. In the coming years, thousands of our nation's top educators will eye Memphis as the best place to work in education and those teachers already in Memphis will have myriad options for career advancement."
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Suzi Parker is an Arkansas-based political and cultural journalist whose work frequently appears in The Washington Post and The Christian Science Monitor. She is the author of two books. @SuziParker | TakePart.com