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Teacher feedback pushes Memphis superintendent to delay vote on $5.6 million literacy contract

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Superintendent Joris Ray delayed a school board vote to spend $5.6 million next year on teacher training and take-home literacy flashcards from consultant company Educational Epiphany.

Laura Faith Kebede / Chalkbeat

After getting pushback from teachers about the district’s plan to spend up to $14.5 million over the next five years on a literacy consultant, Shelby County Schools Superintendent Joris Ray pulled a vote on the contract from Tuesday’s school board meeting agenda. 

Ray said he still supports the proposal to spend $5.6 million next school year on Educational Epiphany’s teacher training and take-home literacy flashcards for Memphis students. He said that until recently, he had “heard nothing but great things” from teachers about the program, but now wants to gather feedback from educators through surveys and meetings before deciding whether to bring the contract back to the school board. 

“For once in a long time, we are providing continuity and consistency across all ZIP codes,” Ray told board members. “As always, I will continue to have the team listen and incorporate board, teacher, parent feedback in how we implement this change.” 

The decision came after Chalkbeat, The Commercial Appeal, and The Daily Memphian reported on teachers’ concerns about the program. The training is part of the district’s plan to help students meet district and state literacy requirements.

Just before the meeting, about 25 cars with teachers carrying signs pulled in front of district headquarters, in part to urge school board members to vote against the contract. Of the 23 comments submitted to be read during the meeting, 15 were about the contract, all in opposition. 

Daniel Warner, who was named the district’s teacher of the year last fall, said the program pushed him to spend 20 to 30 minutes on explaining a lesson’s objective, or standard, to students, which he said wasted precious classroom time. 

“In my experience, instructional time is better spent on the content of the standard rather than the language of the standard,” he said. “Standards are not written for children, they are written for teachers.”

Parent advocacy organization Memphis Lift said it would rather see the money spent on more literacy coaches. 

“We want Memphis children to get support for where they struggle, not a cookie-cutter program of information that teachers can also find online,” the group’s statement read. 

School board member Stephanie Love said some people were “misguided” into thinking Tuesday’s vote would authorize spending $15 million at once. The contract would be foer that amount over five years if the program shows initial success and is extended. Love said she reviewed the program materials and believed they would help students.

“Unfortunately ... what our children need in terms of literacy, they aren’t getting 100%,” she said. 

Ray said he will bring feedback about the program to a board committee meeting in March or April and then decide whether to schedule another vote. 

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