Teacher Town

What a teacher survey in Memphis’ ‘priority schools’ reveals about the obstacles facing ‘Teacher Town’

PHOTO: Oliver Morrison
New teachers undergo training in 2014 through the Memphis Teacher Residency.

The question of where Memphis should find the hundreds of new teachers it needs every year has long fueled debate over efforts to improve the city’s lowest-performing schools.

Some — including Memphis’ current education leaders — have argued that the city needs to look far and wide for students in struggling schools to have a shot at having the teachers they need. Others have argued that local schools are best served by teachers who understand what it’s like to live and learn in Memphis.

That debate got new information Tuesday with the release of Teach901’s annual survey of educators working in “priority schools,” or those where test scores put them in the bottom 5 percent statewide in 2013.

Teach901, which has gone from building buzz about Memphis to recruiting teachers on its own, surveyed nearly 1,200 teachers at 40 priority schools that have undergone changes aimed at dramatically boosting test scores. Here’s what the survey found:

1. New teachers are moving to “Teacher Town,” but most aren’t traveling far. When leaders of Shelby County Schools and the state-run Achievement School District, which includes only low-performing schools undergoing overhauls, pledged two years ago to turn Memphis into “Teacher Town,” they said the city would need to recruit teachers from afar as well as developing them closer to home.

That appears to be happening: About 150 teachers who responded to the survey said they had moved to Memphis in the last year, with the greatest numbers coming from elsewhere in Tennessee and from nearby states, including 34 from Mississippi. An outlier was California, which sent 14 new teachers to Memphis this year, according to the survey.

2. Priority schools are increasingly recruiting and hiring teachers who look like their students. Two thirds of the teachers who responded were black, up slightly since last year and substantially since the survey’s first year, when teachers at only 12 schools participated. The shift reflects a growing understanding that students and teachers both benefit when they have a shared background, according to Emily Cupples, Teach901’s coordinator.

When efforts to overhaul low-performing schools began in Memphis, “we didn’t realize as a city how intentional we should be in thinking through how teachers should be able to empathize and identify with the student,” Cupples said. Now, she said schools and charter operators are thinking about race when recruiting teachers.

3. Memphis’ teacher recruitment challenge isn’t abating any time soon. A third of teachers in priority schools say they plan to stop teaching within five years. That pace of attrition is common among schools serving high-needs students — nationally, estimates of how many teachers leave within five years range from less than 20 percent to as high as 50 percent — and suggests that Memphis’ efforts to improve struggling schools are unlikely to escape forces that have kept improvements from being sustained elsewhere.

What’s more, the report concludes, the city isn’t yet in a position to head off mass teacher departures. “Without actual attrition data … it is difficult to know the severity of this potential threat,” it says before recommending that local groups work with schools to track what happens to teachers who leave.

4. Where to find the teachers Memphis needs isn’t clear. Three quarters of new recruits answered that “the opportunity to be part of an education reform movement that is garnering national attention” was important or very important in their decision to move to the city — but they were also more likely to say that they planned to move away and to leave the teaching profession. In contrast, nearly 80 percent of teachers who graduated from the University of Memphis, the largest supplier of teachers to schools in the city, said they planned to stay in the classroom for more than five years, but they gave their preparation a below-average rating.

Teach901’s conclusions reflect an ambivalence about whether to recruit new teacher talent from afar or look closer to home. The report recommends that the city “evaluate the return on investment of attracting outside teacher talent to Memphis,” while also suggesting that it “continue to invest time and resources to brand Memphis as the place to be for those who want to be a part of the ‘mission’ of urban school reform.” Memphis Teacher Residency, an intensive training program that has increasingly worked to sell recruits on the city as well as prepare them for the classroom, best splits the difference, according to the report.

the aftermath

What educators, parents, and students are grappling with in the wake of America’s latest school shooting

Kristi Gilroy (right) hugs a young woman at a police check point near the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School where 17 people were killed by a gunman in Parkland, Florida. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

It’s hard to know where to start on days like this.

The shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, that left 17 people dead on Wednesday has elicited both terror and anger — and raised debates that are far from settled about how to keep American students safe.

Here are a few storylines we noticed as the country again grapples with a tragic school shooting:

1. You’re not wrong to think it: There have been a lot of mass shootings, and many recent ones have been especially deadly.

Data on school shootings specifically, though, is notoriously murky. As the Atlantic recently noted, varying definitions can contribute to either “sensationalizing or oversimplifying a modern trend of mass violence in America that is seemingly becoming more entrenched.”

But by NBC News’ count, 20 people have been killed and more than 30 have been injured in school shootings this year. That’s a lot — and more news organizations are now trying to keep a careful tally.

2. The consequences of traumatic events like the shooting at Stoneman Douglas are likely to be felt for some time.

A number of studies have found that violent and traumatic events in and outside of school do real damage to student learning, as we’ve reported — particularly among students who are already struggling. Here are some resources for teachers who need to talk to their students about trauma.

3. The tragedy is already renewing debates over whether or how to arm teachers.

Education Week gathered some of those calls from politicians Thursday. “Gun-safety advocates say that teachers can’t safely and quickly move from the mindset of teaching to being asked to fire a gun at an active shooter,” the story also notes.

This doesn’t even get at the debate about whether anyone should have access to the kind of gun the shooter used. Students from the district, for their part, told Broward schools chief Robert Runcie Thursday “that the time is due for a conversation on sensible gun control,” the Miami Herald reported.

Whether other technology and infrastructure can help keep students safe is a topic of ongoing discussion in communities across the country. Colorado lawmakers are considering a bill to help schools buy communications systems that would allow them to talk directly to police and other emergency responders. Officials from districts that already use this equipment described them as a way to increase safety without “turning our schools into prisons,” even as they also assured lawmakers that the radios were just as useful for serious playground injuries and broken-down buses as for the much rarer active shooter situations.

In Tennessee, one school district near Nashville announced plans to close schools next Monday to review all safety plans with school staff and local law enforcement.

4. In some places, the shooting is unlikely to change the school safety debate at all.

In New York City, for example, conversations about school safety in recent years have revolved around discipline policies and metal detectors (though police have seized an increasing number of weapons from city schools). There’s little appetite there to arm teachers.

5. But all across America, the shooting and others like it have added a frightening tone to what it means to teach and learn in schools today.

“I know you are waking up this morning to a nightmare,” a former educator wrote in a “love letters to teachers” on Teaching Tolerance. “I know you are frustrated, tired and weary of the news. I know you are wearing your coat of bravery today.”

“I’m so, so angry and I’m having a hard time today looking at my students and not thinking about what happens when it’s my school’s turn,” wrote one commenter on the Badass Teachers Association Facebook group.

getting to graduation

New York City graduation rate hits record high of 74.3 percent in 2017

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Mayor Bill de Blasio announced the 2017 graduation rate at South Bronx Preparatory school.

New York City’s graduation rate rose to 74.3 percent in 2017, a slight increase over the previous year and a new high for the city.

The 1.2 percentage point increase over the previous year continues an upward climb for the city, where the overall graduation rate has grown by nearly 28 points since 2005. The state graduation rate also hit a new high — 82.1 percent — just under the U.S. rate of 84.1 percent.

The city’s dropout rate fell to 7.8 percent, a small decline from the previous year and the lowest rate on record, according to the city.

“New York City is showing that when we invest in our students, they rise to the challenge and do better and better,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said in a statement Wednesday.

More graduates were also deemed ready for college-level work. Last year, 64 percent of graduates earned test scores that met the City University of New York’s “college-ready” benchmark — up more than 13 percentage points from the previous year. 

However, the gains came after CUNY eased its readiness requirements; without that change, city officials said the increase would be significantly smaller. But even with the less rigorous requirements, more than a third of city students who earned high-school diplomas would be required to take remedial classes at CUNY.

Phil Weinberg, the education department’s deputy chancellor for teaching and learning, noted that CUNY’s college-readiness requirements are more demanding than New York’s graduation standards — which are among the toughest in the country.

We will work toward making sure none of our students need remediation when they get to college,” he told reporters. “But that’s a long game for us and we continue to move in that direction.”

The rising graduation rates follow a series of changes the state has made in recent years to help more students earn diplomas.

The graduation-requirement changes include allowing students with disabilities to earn a diploma by passing fewer exit exams and letting more students appeal a failed score. In addition, students can now substitute a work-readiness credential for one of the five Regents exams they must pass in order to graduate — adding to a number of other alternative tests the state has made available in the past few years.

About 9,900 students used one of those alternative-test or credential options in 2017, while 315 students with disabilities took advantage of the new option for them, according to state officials. They could not say how many students successfully appealed a low test score; but in 2016, about 1,300 New York City students did so.

The news was mixed for schools in de Blasio’s high-profile “Renewal” improvement program for low-performing schools. Among the 28 high schools that have received new social services and academic support through the program, the graduation rate increased to nearly 66 percent — almost a 6 percentage point bump over 2016. Their dropout rate also fell by about 2 points, to 16.4 percent, though that remains more than twice as high as the citywide rate.

However, more than half of the high schools in that $568 million program — 19 out of 28 — missed the graduation goals the city set for them, according to a New York Times analysis based on preliminary figures.

Graduation rates for students who are still learning English ticked up slightly to 32.5 percent, following a sharp decline the previous year that the state education commissioner called “disturbing.” City officials argue that students who improved enough to shed the designation of “English language learner” in the years before they graduated should also be counted; among that larger group, the graduation rate was 53 percent in 2017.

Meanwhile, the graduation-rate gap between white students and their black and Hispanic peers narrowed a smidgen, but it remains wide. Last year, the graduation rate was about 83 percent for white students, 70 percent for black students, and 68 percent for Hispanic students. That represented a closing of the gap between white and black students by 0.4 percentage points, and 0.1 points between whites and Hispanic.

Asian students had the highest rate — 87.5 percent — a nearly 2 point increase from the previous year that widened their lead over other racial groups.

Christina Veiga contributed reporting.