Gauging a game changer

How $90 million from Bill Gates spurred sweeping changes in one school district

PHOTO: Ruma Kumar/Chalkbeat

In 2009, a group of philanthropists and local educators set an ambitious goal: What if Memphis City Schools (now Shelby County Schools) could become a national model of great teaching for all children? Between the philanthropists — including up to $90 million from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation — and a federal grant soon after from the Obama administration, the district poured $184 million into addressing the district’s chronic failure in recruiting, developing and retaining talent for its schools and classrooms. Over the last six and a half years, many of the basic ways schools and teachers are supported have been completely overhauled. But student achievement still lags. And while some teachers have welcomed the changes, others feel more frustrated than before. This is the story of how a school system leveraged millions of dollars to shift from an environment of isolation and angst into a culture that seeks to support and value the people who work in its schools. And it’s about the students who are the guinea pigs for determining if rising teacher quality translates into higher student achievement.

Allison Graybeal sobbed in her car in the parking lot of the Memphis school where she taught. The trained economist had left a comfortable job at an accounting firm to become a teacher at one of Tennessee’s lowest performing middle schools. “I wanted to wake up in the mornings with a sense of purpose,” she explains.

But on most days in 2011, her first year of teaching at Raleigh Egypt Middle School, Graybeal’s eighth-grade math students were struggling at basic addition and nowhere near ready to tackle the pre-algebra concepts they were expected to master on the state achievement test. Sometimes, she struggled just to settle down her students enough to listen to her lesson. On other days, transitioning them to small group work, a method her principal had suggested, dissolved into raucous chatter.

In her car after school, she was overwhelmed with doubt and worry. “I’ve lost them,” she kept thinking.

In this urban district — where many of the 112,000 students hope to be the first generation in their family to attend college, and where school staff often spend their own money buying children winter coats, doing laundry and offering gift cards for chicken sandwiches so their students have no excuse to miss class — success in school “is make or break,” Graybeal says.

“When you teach in a place like Memphis, the stakes are high,” she says. “Education is the way you will lift most of these kids out of poverty. You have to succeed. You have to be able to help these students have a better life.”

Yet, as her meltdown testified, when it came to how to lift up her students, Graybeal was at a total loss. Like many teachers across Memphis, she had little access to those who could help her serve her students better. At the same time, the city was a textbook example of a phenomenon that national observers were beginning to call the “widget” problem: Teachers were treated as interchangeable parts, placed in classrooms and paid the same way, regardless of their skills and backgrounds.

In many places, efforts to change that dynamic had followed the same trajectory as so many planned education reforms: Big, bold initiatives were quickly derailed by budget crises, legal constraints, and pressure from interest groups, including unions. The difference for Graybeal and her counterparts in Memphis, not to mention the students they believed they were failing, was that none of those things would substantially stop their school district from executing on its vision.

"When you teach in a place like Memphis, the stakes are high. Education is the way you will lift most of these kids out of poverty. You have to succeed. You have to be able to help these students have a better life."Allison Graybeal, teacher

The starting point was a $90 million commitment from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, its second-largest education gift in 2009. Local philanthropists and, later, the Obama administration added more funding to overhaul teaching, and changes to state law and local bureaucracy eased the way.

As the unprecedented investment nears its end more than six years later, Memphis’ experience has indeed become a national case study, with many bright spots, but also many challenges.

Between 2010 and now, the district has overhauled how it hires, places, evaluates and pays teachers. The changes appear to have translated into stronger student achievement — most dramatically at some long-struggling schools — while district leaders believe the new structures eventually will have the same effect system-wide.

At the same time, the transition has come with real challenges, including demoralization among some educators and a realization that not all principals were equipped to change their schools’ culture around teaching. And across the city, many students continue to struggle academically.

Now, facing a $72 million education budget shortfall next year, Memphis leaders are scrambling to figure out how to continue the teacher quality reforms it took so long to cultivate.

“What we have asked teachers to do over the last few years has been extraordinary,” Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dorsey Hopson recently told a group of community leaders. “And we are definitely starting to see some progress, so we’ve got to make sure the cuts don’t reach the classroom and undermine what we’ve been working on the last few years.”

Middle College High School teacher Allison Graybeal teaches her Algebra I class. Ruma Kumar/Chalkbeat
PHOTO: Ruma Kumar/Chalkbeat
Allison Graybeal teaches her Algebra I class at Middle College High School. (Photo by Ruma Kumar/Chalkbeat)

As Graybeal worried in her car, officials in Memphis and funders in Seattle were already at work to make sure that no future teacher would have the same struggles she was experiencing.

Before she entered the system, Memphis City Schools offered little in the way of coaching or evaluation for its teachers. Professional training seminars to arm them with successful teaching techniques were sporadic. Few principals observed or advised whether teaching models being used in class were effective, and if not, how to change them. When evaluations did occur, every five years, the feedback was too little, too late. And the district did little to ensure that individual students had the teachers most able to help them.

To a growing faction in the education world, that reality was a clear explanation for Memphis students’ abysmal academic performance. Several recent studies had shaken conventional wisdom about why students don’t do well, concluding that teachers vary widely in how much their students learn — and that the variation comes from the teachers themselves, not how they were trained or who their students are.

One of the researchers who came to that conclusion, Harvard professor Thomas Kane, attracted the attention of Bill Gates, the Microsoft executive who was then ramping up his education giving. Gates recruited Kane to lead the Gates Foundation’s efforts to figure out how to help school districts identify quality teaching and replicate it.

(Chalkbeat receives support from the Gates Foundation and other foundations that supported this effort. Learn about our donors here.)

Kane’s search for willing partners in that work took him to Tennessee — which unlike most states already was calculating each teacher’s annual impact on student learning — and to Memphis specifically. There, a charismatic new superintendent, Kriner Cash, had begun criticizing the district’s human capital practices almost as soon as he was appointed in 2008.

In late 2009, Cash got the phone call from Bill and Melinda Gates: They were signing off on Memphis’ application to become a flagship district for teacher quality improvement efforts, and they would give $90 million over six years to make that happen. Among the four grant recipients, only Tampa’s Hillsborough County Schools would get a bigger boost.


Cash called the grant a “game changer” that would help the district build new ways to find, measure, coach and deploy strong teachers and principals. This wasn’t just about reforming schools, he told his staff. This was about reforming a city. More effective teachers would mean higher-performing students, who would turn into more productive citizens, a more talented workforce.

“We listened. We believed it,” said Tequilla Banks, a district research and evaluation expert who’d been studying teacher quality for the school system.

They were heady with possibility and dreams. But they were not naive. As part of the grant application process, Banks had just completed an exhaustive evaluation of the district, scrutinizing the quality of staff at schools, how it hired and deployed teachers and staff, and how it evaluated and supported them once they were there.

They started by looking at data they already had — ”value-added” ratings for thousands of teachers. The Gates Foundation and other advocates were pushing for widespread use of such models, which aim to measure a teacher’s impact on student learning but have been criticized as inaccurate and overly reliant on test scores. Tennessee had been an early adopter, calculating ratings for core subject teachers since 1993 but barring their use in personnel decisions.

What Banks found dismayed her and her colleagues. About 20 percent of Memphis’ core subject teachers had ratings that suggested they routinely helped their students achieve more than year’s worth of progress within a single school year. But many of those were concentrated in Memphis’ selective, middle class and historically higher-performing schools, while most of the schools with chronically low test scores and the most challenging students had no teachers who met that mark.


“What that told us was the chance of a child getting a highly effective teacher was a lottery,” recalls Banks, now a vice president at TNTP, an advocacy group that lobbies for tougher teacher evaluations. “It was luck of the draw.”

The district’s own researchers found that the school system had a sluggish human resources department that did most of its work manually and lost its best teaching candidates in an application process that took an average of 110 days. The district also was recruiting from colleges of education in late spring and summer, too late to get the best hires who’d been scouted by January. Once teachers were hired, there was little effort to support and evaluate them.

"... The chance of a child getting a highly effective teacher was a lottery. It was luck of the draw."Tequilla Banks, TNTP vice president

Through a Gates-funded experiment it called the Teacher Effectiveness Initiative, the district set out to overhaul its hiring and staffing practices in order to recruit and identify higher quality teacher applicants. It disavowed a history of pay by tenure and experience in favor of a system that relied on principal evaluations and growth in student learning based on state test scores. Inside of schools, it began training principals and teachers with strong track records of raising student achievement to coach their colleagues. The district also sought to embolden principals to make funding and staffing decisions in schools, allowing principals and teachers to decide for themselves where they could thrive and make the biggest difference.

A whiteboard at Raleigh Egypt Middle School displays dozens of metrics at the core of Tennessee's new evaluation system. Ruma Kumar/Chalkbeat
A whiteboard at Raleigh Egypt Middle School displays dozens of metrics at the core of Tennessee’s new evaluation system. (Photo by Ruma Kumar/Chalkbeat)

Just as the teacher effectiveness work got underway, two remarkable things happened to change its course.

First, the teacher evaluation template in Memphis’ Gates grant application had gone from something the district warned would encounter strong resistance from local educators to a requirement under state law. The new law — which Tennessee’s governor at the time said was influenced by the vision proposed by Memphis officials — also required teachers’ ratings to be the basis of all personnel decisions, from tenure to dismissal.

The changes happened because Tennessee lawmakers, who wanted to bring home a new pot of federal funds, dramatically reshaped the state’s education laws to require annual teacher evaluations that included student test scores. The lawmakers were responding to the Obama administration’s 2010 Race to the Top competition, which was inspired by the same theories behind Memphis’ teacher quality push and announced days before local officials turned in their Gates application.

Race to the Top divvied up $4.35 billion to states that promised, among other things, to measure students’ growth over time and design policies to reward and retain top teachers. Tennessee became one of the first winners, receiving half a billion dollars, of which about $69 million would go straight to Memphis schools.

The sweetened pot was a boon to the district. But the policy changes were just as significant: Memphis would not need to win the local union’s support for changing evaluations, avoiding a negotiation process that would sideline evaluation overhauls in other places.

With evaluations out of the way, Memphis officials moved into the fall of 2010 focused on using a peer coaching model and a new tool for measuring effective classroom teaching to help teachers improve. It had even begun piloting the work in a handful of schools. Then came a shocker: In November, a school board member formally suggested resolving a funding crisis by giving up the city’s right to run schools.

The proposal, to merge Memphis City Schools with several suburban districts, seemed like a long shot. But the following March, voters approved the surrender by a more than 2-to-1 margin, though just 17 percent of eligible voters cast a ballot. The vote launched the nation’s largest school district consolidation — and an almost immediate effort by the suburban districts to plot an exit strategy. (Six of them took advantage of a new law, hastily passed in response to the merger, to secede from the shared system.)

"The state really created a difficult situation for us. Any sense of security teachers had in their jobs was just stripped."Keith Williams, executive director, teachers union

The upheaval seemed to threaten the district’s teacher improvement work by distracting its leaders from their narrow policy agenda. Top school leaders worried aloud that Gates would pull out of Memphis, taking the programs its funding supported with it. The Teacher Effectiveness Initiative went into “maintenance mode,” according to Banks.

“It was tough to keep innovating and stay focused on continuous improvement when we were focused on ensuring that the work was sustained through the merger,” she said, adding that officials also worried about how to implement the new coaching and evaluation system across the rambling 150,000-student district the proposed merger would create.

But when local philanthropists affirmed their commitment to the district’s teacher quality work, the Gates Foundation kept its pledge intact through 2016.

And in the end, the shakeup and uncertainty that could have quashed the nascent Gates-funded reforms allowed them to take root. After the merger occurred in 2013 and suburban districts seceded in 2014, the new Shelby County Schools looked very similar in shape and student population to the Memphis City Schools district it replaced. But the district had been forced to rebuild its operations from scratch, making rewriting its way of business easier than it might otherwise have been.

A new school board and superintendent took charge in the wake of the merger, and they were not beholden to decades-old contracts and teachers union agreements. Meanwhile, the local teachers union — already struggling, with only about half of Memphis educators as members — had been weakened by two 2011 state laws that limited collective bargaining for public school teachers and made it harder for them to get and keep tenure. The laws paved the way for the district to use Gates funding to jumpstart the changes to salary and tenure practices that it had promised the foundation.

“The state really created a difficult situation for us,” said Keith Williams, executive director for the teachers union in Memphis and Shelby County. “[The state’s new laws] made it almost impossible to earn or keep tenure, and then it limited collective bargaining to the point that we couldn’t even have a contract. Any sense of security teachers had in their jobs was just stripped. It was a double whammy.”

With some of its hardest-to-fulfill promises made possible by changes to state law, the newly created Shelby County Schools forged ahead with the Teacher Effectiveness Initiative. In the three years that followed, the district would spend more than $3.5 million to develop a rubric to grade teachers’ performance and train district staff on how to use it. It deployed more than 400 full-time and part-time coaches with iPads to schools to document teacher performance in Shelby County classrooms.

And nearly 2,000 teachers — including Allison Graybeal — received coaching and targeted feedback to make them more effective in the classroom.

When Graybeal left Raleigh Egypt Middle and joined the faculty of Middle College High in the fall of 2012, principal Docia Generette-Walker had barely been there six months. But the new principal already was redefining the way the midtown Memphis school operated. Ruma Kumar/Chalkbeat
PHOTO: Ruma Kumar
Principal Docia Generette-Walker has redefined the way Middle College High School operates. (Photo by Ruma Kumar/Chalkbeat)

When Graybeal left Raleigh Egypt Middle and joined the faculty of Middle College High in the fall of 2012, principal Docia Generette-Walker had barely been there six months. But the new principal already was redefining the way the midtown Memphis school operated.

The high school of 280 students was literally and figuratively breaking down. While the school screens its students and had long outperformed other schools in Memphis, many of its students struggled in middle school and most came from homes in the city’s poorest neighborhoods. A number of key teachers and a principal left unexpectedly in the middle of 2011, and students were learning out of classrooms in trailers while the school’s aging building was being renovated.

Generette-Walker capitalized on that disarray to transform the way the school operated, introducing a system of teacher leaders and coaches. “We had some great teachers doing great things in their classroom. The attitude was ‘My kids are doing fine,’” Generette-Walker recalls. But that wasn’t good enough. “How can we take the best teachers and spread them out so they can influence all of the students?” she pressed her staff.

Emboldened by the Gates-funded teacher support work, the principal began conducting weekly observations in every classroom, where she and assistant principal Andy Demster videotaped and recorded teaching practices and lesson planning sessions. They called it “reflective practice” and offered specific feedback on how to make lessons more relevant, use small group instruction more effectively, and redirect misbehavior. They braced prospective teachers that coming to Middle College High meant “getting used to someone being in your room, watching you, once maybe more a week.”

"How can we take the best teachers and spread them out so they can influence all of the students?"Docia Generette-Walker, principal

As a fledgling teacher, Graybeal had struggled to be nimble and responsive in the “juggling act” that teaching requires.

First, there’s what to teach, preferably written on the board as a clear objective that every student can understand. Then, how to teach it: Which is the best way to get the content across? Straight teacher-led lecture? Small group work? Large class discussion? Then there’s the psychology of teaching: how to curb misbehavior before it erupts, how to gauge the underlying cause of the student’s outburst and redirect. And last, how to “read” student feedback: Can you tell who is understanding what you’re saying? Can you tell who isn’t? If students aren’t getting the content, what can you change about how you teach — right then and there — to make sure they are understanding?

Demster suggested that Graybeal employ a mix of teacher-led lectures, small group work, and individual work, using timers for pacing to keep the class fresh and students engaged. He suggested she give the students individual whiteboards to write quick responses to her questions to hold up so she would know exactly who is understanding the lesson and who isn’t. She also dropped her shy, soft-spoken voice an octave to a firm bass that would quickly get her students’ attention.

By 2014, after two years of coaching, Graybeal had improved her teaching methods so much that she was a coach herself to three of her peers. Her school also was benefiting from the coaching model. Over the last four years, student proficiency has climbed more than 20 percentage points on state tests in algebra and English. Last year, Middle College High was one of six in Tennessee to win national honors for both performance and improvement.

More importantly, Generette-Walker said, teachers’ mindsets have changed fundamentally. “If you needed a coach, it used to have a negative connotation,” she said. “Now, the teachers are getting used to having someone observing them every week. It’s a break in the isolation. We all need that support.”

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson visits classrooms and students at Snowden School. Ruma Kumar/Chalkbeat
PHOTO: Ruma Kumar
Superintendent Dorsey Hopson visits classrooms and students at Snowden School. (Photo by Ruma Kumar/Chalkbeat)

What happened at Middle College High was a best-case scenario for what Gates and district officials hoped would transpire to improve teaching at individual schools. Inside district headquarters, leaders were working to make it more likely for that scenario to repeat across the district.

But they soon saw that changing the status quo wouldn’t be easy everywhere. They rolled out the rubric for effective teaching that they had hired a California consulting firm, Insight Education Group, to produce. That rubric included bullet points on everything from how to transition between lessons to how to leverage technology or methods like creative role-playing to cement difficult concepts.

It also made teachers nervous. They would have to demonstrate mastery of dozens of skills just to meet the district’s expectations. To exceed expectations — and be eligible for potential bonuses and positions of responsibility — they would have to do even better.

Checking all of the boxes can impede doing what it takes to reach students, some teachers say. “Sometimes you have to put on your dog and pony show,” said Laura Wilons, a teacher at Grahamwood Elementary School.

A big focus of the district’s rollout became managing teachers’ fears that the rubric would be a punitive measure designed to hurt, rather than help. Those fears deepened as the school system shakeup pushed the local teachers union to the sidelines.

“Early on, the teachers were involved in the discussions,” said the union’s leader, Williams. “We sat on the committees and helped shape the rubric. But as we moved on, we lost control and it turned into an autocratic ‘I gotcha’ system.”

That characterization isn’t accurate, Superintendent Hopson said, but it is widespread.

“When I talk to teachers across the district about the evaluation system, what I keep hearing is the angst,” Hopson said. “That’s a cultural battle we are fighting on some level — this feeling that when you get your evaluation, when a principal comes into your class, watches you, offers feedback, it’s not a ‘gotcha.’ It’s there to help you grow, help you get better.”

In many ways, criticism of local changes followed a pattern playing out in cities across the nation. While union leaders initially were open to tying teachers’ ratings to student performance, their tolerance diminished as the stakes increased, complaints about the ratings’ fairness mounted, and specifics of the evaluation systems came under fire. Critiques of value-added models gained steam, and even the architect of Tennessee’s version said the state was using value-added scores inappropriately. The influence of powerful outside actors like the Gates Foundation increasingly came under attack.

"When I talk to teachers across the district about the evaluation system, what I keep hearing is the angst. That’s a cultural battle we are fighting on some level."Superintendent Dorsey Hopson

Despite the growing pushback, Memphis officials plowed ahead in using the rubric to identify, hire, and support teacher and principal candidates. The Gates money also helped support roughly $3 million in existing teacher recruitment contracts with Teach For America, New Leaders for New Schools and The New Teacher Project — costs that the district previously had shouldered alone.

The New Teacher Project, now known as TNTP, also helped the school system revamp its hiring by creating a more organized, computerized system to post and fill vacancies and track prospective teacher hires. The district had been mired in paperwork. To post a vacancy, the personnel department circulated forms that required no fewer than six signatures from various departments. Forms languished on desks, while prospective hires were asked to provide official college transcripts, a weeks-long process that caused many to drop out.

TNTP cut out most of those steps while computerizing others and made the application process more rigorous and efficient. It also introduced an ideological litmus test for potential teachers: Candidates who said they believed that all students can learn and that teachers have the greatest influence on student performance were allowed in. Applicants who answered that some students’ life circumstances would dictate their performance were turned away.

In the end, a district that previously had only screened for college GPA and licensure now was screening for applicants who bought into the district’s vision for its future.

The changes extended to the way teachers landed in individual schools. Overall, new teachers were brought on board within a week, instead of the more than three months it used to take. As significantly, the district adopted the practice of “mutual consent,” in which teachers and principals agree to work together rather than teachers being placed into vacancies by seniority. The practice, which several other major districts adopted at the same time, set the stage for teachers’ ratings to decide who would be laid off when schools closed.

It also meant that principals were now choosing the teachers that they were increasingly being tasked with improving. The district would spend $74 million on teacher coaches and training courses that benefited Graybeal, and another $27 million on training for principals like Generette-Walker.

Middle College High School teacher Allison Graybeal and Assistant Principal Michael Dempster coach 2nd year teacher Joseph Heywood on how to be more effective with his math students. They provide advice on how to use small group work and large class discussion to improve class participation and student understanding. Ruma Kumar/Chalkbeat
Teacher Allison Graybeal and Assistant Principal Andy Dempster coach second-year teacher Joseph Heywood on how to be more effective with his math students. (Photo by Ruma Kumar/Chalkbeat)

Did it work? For teachers like Allison Graybeal, the answer is absolutely.

Graybeal said coaching has helped her with the nuts and bolts of classroom instruction. Her principal and assistant principal have taught her to anticipate and address the hundreds of seemingly small decisions that can threaten to ruin hours of lesson planning, she says, like how students enter the room and sit down and how instructions are worded.

“I can’t just say, ‘OK, guys, let’s take out a piece of paper and try these problems,’” she said in the sing-songy voice she said she has discarded. “I have to transition into it.” Now, she is firm and clear: “OK, in the next five seconds, I want you to take out a piece of paper and work out the problems on the board. We will discuss your answers in two minutes.”

Graybeal is not alone. She was in a cohort of 1,900 teachers — out of about 7,000 across the district — to receive intensive coaching starting in 2012. A 2014 survey of 1,750 teachers found that two-thirds of teachers said they were more effective because of their coaches.

On the other end of the city, in North Memphis, veteran teacher Sherry Simmons was in that same group. Simmons said she’s getting the kind of support she wished for when she began teaching in the district in 1979. An English teacher at Raleigh Egypt High School, Simmons said her principal, Bo Griffin, visits her several times a week, offering suggestions on how to improve lessons. Recently, she said, he noticed that she was asking students to recall too many “whats” from their reading and encouraged her to challenge students to explain “the why” instead. On some days, he just leans back against a wall watching, offering moral support.

“I feel supported,” Simmons says. “The way he talks to you, it’s personal; he treats you with honor and respect and you never feel like he’s telling you you’re doing it wrong. He’s just trying to help and make it better.”

Raleigh Egypt High School Principal Bo Griffin talks with students in the school’s hallways. Ruma Kumar/Chalkbeat
PHOTO: Ruma Kumar
Principal Bo Griffin talks with students in the hallways of Raleigh Egypt High School. (Photo by Ruma Kumar/Chalkbeat)

The impact of the teacher and principal coaching work has been greatest in the 18 schools that are part of the Innovation Zone, the district’s school turnaround program. Over the last three years, the district has used $1,000 signing and retention bonuses, along with promises of working for charismatic principals and receiving additional support, to lure 334 of the school system’s top-rated teachers and promising recruits to historically low-performing schools in the iZone. That influx is one explanation the district offers for iZone schools’ rapid test score gains, which outpace the increases in the state’s own turnaround initiative in Memphis.

Fifth-grade teacher Renata McNeil was one of the teachers who made the switch. She earned the top evaluation score at a high-performing, selective elementary school but chose to move to the iZone’s Cherokee Elementary, where 10 percent of students were proficient in reading and 14 percent were proficient in math in 2010. McNeil wanted to work with principal Rodney Rowan, under whose leadership test scores have risen sharply. Now, a third of students are proficient in English and two-thirds meet the state’s proficiency bar in math.

“I hire attitude and train skill,” says Rowan, who calls his work “intentional, collaborative and urgent” — or ICU, just like the trauma hospital five miles from his school. Here, within these cinder block walls, Rowan is saving lives too, he says.

But the district hasn’t been as successful with its Gates-funded work in the majority of its schools, where student test scores have been stagnant and the concentration of high-rated teachers is lower.

The district told the Gates Foundation that it would seek to fire low-rated teachers who did not improve. Indeed, it has dismissed 100 low-rated teachers a year, but another 800 still work in Memphis classrooms. About 100 of them have had multiple years of low ratings and multiple years of coaching, but their principals have not taken steps to remove them — consistent with research showing that principals tend to keep ineffective teachers in place to avoid the unpleasant and time-consuming work of firing them, even when they technically can.

Increasingly, district leaders have learned that principals are the linchpin of its effort to improve teacher quality.

The evaluation system that has become the heart of the effort gets the strongest marks in schools like Cherokee Elementary where teachers and principals work well together — a finding that confirms reams of other research about the significance of school leadership.

Cherokee Elementary Principal Rodney Rowan coaches and observes fourth grade teacher Elizabeth Frison. With his help over the last three years, she says she has become a “level 5” teacher. Ruma Kumar/Chalkbeat
Principal Rodney Rowan observes and coaches fourth-grade teacher Elizabeth Frison at Cherokee Elementary School. She credits Rowan for helping her become a top-rated teacher. (Photo by Ruma Kumar/Chalkbeat)

But in schools where the principals’ work and attitude with teachers and parents is tense or distant, teachers consider the evaluations arbitrary and subjective at best, punitive and capricious at worst.

One middle school teacher said her evaluations earn her high marks but are dotted with examples of “nit-picking.” For example, on one evaluation, the teacher lost points for failing to explicitly spell out the day’s learning objective on the board.

“It feels like a joke,” said the teacher, who like many other teachers interviewed for this story asked to remain anonymous for fear of retribution. “Here I am pushing these kids to intelligently discuss the environment in small groups, these kids, some of them barely came to me reading, and what the principal sees is that I didn’t state the objective.”

District leaders say they know they need to do more to help principals galvanize and support their teachers the way that Rowan does at Cherokee Elementary. They’ve started by renaming the Teacher Effectiveness Initiative — it’s now “Teacher and Leader Effectiveness.”

“We talk a lot about how teachers are the single greatest factor in schools to affect student achievement. What’s the second? It’s leadership,” said Heidi Ramirez, the district’s chief academic officer since 2015. “That’s our next biggest investment. We have a huge distance to go on that front.”

A Treadwell Elementary student studies. Ruma Kumar/Chalkbeat
A student studies at Treadwell Elementary School. (Photo by Ruma Kumar/Chalkbeat)

In its proposal to the Gates Foundation, Memphis school leaders acknowledged that none of the work is worth it unless students do better.

By this time, the district had forecast that local high schools would graduate 75 percent of their seniors but also that the students would perform well enough on national standardized tests to succeed in college. It also said least 60 percent of elementary and middle schoolers would be proficient in reading, math and science.

That hasn’t happened: Elementary and middle school students average in the 30th and 40th percentile on state tests. And while the fluctuating graduation rate landed last year exactly at 75 percent, up from 67 percent in 2008, most high schoolers do not score high enough on standardized tests to suggest they’re ready for college.

“Change of this magnitude is challenging and takes time,” said Josh Edelman, a Gates Foundation executive charged with keeping track of Memphis’ progress under the grant. “Too many students are still not prepared for post-secondary success.”

Hopson acknowledges the room for growth but says the gains at low-performing schools have been real.

“This is hard work,” said Hopson, who now also faces a budget crunch to continue the work as the Gates money dries up. “We missed the mark in some places, but those were ambitious goals set by the previous administrations, and I don’t think we should minimize the improvements we have made.”

Hopson’s assessment — that the investment kicked off real changes that the district should continue — is especially notable because the district that received the most money from the Gates Foundation is in the process of dismantling its teacher quality reforms. Facing a budget shortfall and resistance from its teachers union, Hillsborough County Schools in Florida fired the superintendent who ushered in the changes.

The school Graybeal left illustrates that even as Memphis has escaped some harsh realities of urban education reform, it is hardly immune to the pressures that can impede broad improvements. Progress is piecemeal — and sometimes comes too late.

In 2013-14, students at Raleigh Egypt Middle scored low on state tests, with only 13 percent reading on grade level and 14 percent proficient in math. That improved last year under a dynamic new principal who pushed intensive coaching for struggling teachers and tutoring for students. Math proficiency increased by 8 percentage points to 22 percent. Still, the gains were not enough to ward off takeover by the state-run Achievement School District, another vehicle for improvement created under Tennessee’s Race to the Top plan. Raleigh Egypt will convert to a charter school this fall.

Sometimes, Graybeal thinks of her former students. They should be ready to graduate from high school by now. Did they ever get better at algebra? Did they find a teacher who had learned as much as she had? She would be different — stronger, more confident — with those students today.

“Teaching can be so much of learning as you go, learning on your feet,” Graybeal reflects. “When you finally have the right support and help, to get that outside perspective is invaluable. It has made me the teacher I am today.”


Corrections & clarifications: March 21, 2016: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated the duration of the grant from the Gates Foundation. It also incorrectly said that the district’s evaluation system includes a peer mentor component; it does not, although Memphis does have a peer coaching system. It also incorrectly characterized the average performance of elementary and middle school students on state tests. The story has also been clarified to reflect that Tequilla Banks worked for the school district when she studied its teacher development practices and that scores for schools across Shelby County have risen in recent years, even as scores in Innovation Zone schools have risen fastest.

How I Lead

Meditation and Mindfulness: How a Harlem principal solves conflict in her community

Dawn DeCosta, the principal of Thurgood Marshall Academy Lower School

Here, in a series we call “How I Lead,” we feature principals and assistant principals who have been recognized for their work. You can see other pieces in the series here.

Dawn DeCosta, Thurgood Marshall Academy Lower School’s principal of seven years, never pictured herself leading a school. Originally a fine arts major and art teacher, she was inspired to be a community leader when she took a summer leadership course at Columbia University’s Teacher College. The program helped her widen her impact to outside the classroom by teaching her how to find personal self awareness and mindfulness. For the past four years she has taught the students, teachers, and parents in her school’s community how to solve conflict constructively through the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence’s RULER program — a social-emotional learning program that brings together many of the tools that she learned at Columbia. While describing these new practices and techniques, DeCosta reflected on the specific impact they have had on her community.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

What is the Yale RULER program?

It’s more of a process, not a script or curriculum. An approach that has these four anchors: the mood meter, the charter, the meta-moment, and the blueprint. We use the mood meter to describe feelings, because a lot of times we’ll just hear “I feel happy” or “I feel sad.” You want them to be able to better pinpoint how they feel, and the mood meter is a square with these quadrants that are different colors and show how much energy a student has at a given moment and how pleasant they’re feeling. The charter is an agreement to the class. It replaces “don’t hit, don’t kick” with “how do we want to feel, what are we going to do to feel that way, what will we do if we have a conflict.” The meta-moment are six steps on how to deal with a stressful situation, and the blueprint is a plan to serve a longer-term conflict between two people- to solve an ongoing conflict that we need a plan for, that’s not just in the moment. We integrate all four components throughout the day, throughout the week, throughout the year.

What changes did you make to it to make it work for your community, and what are the specific strategies you use?

We do it with teachers, students, staff, and supplement it with a culturally relevant approach. We have 100 percent black and brown children, so this means using culturally relevant texts, since we want students learning about leaders and artists who look like them. We want them to see models of excellence in themselves and see success too in themselves in order to combat some of the negative images they see in the media or even in their neighborhoods. This is a beautiful place but there’s also a lot going on in terms of poverty and violence, which have an impact on their lives, how they feel, how they live, how they see things. We’ve incorporated meditation, mindfulness, brain breaks, yoga, and arts into our curriculum. We’ve put all the different pieces together to tap into what makes kids want to go to school and makes them love to be here. We want to use these in every grade, so that we give students a common language and kids can move from one grade to the next easily. Student ownership is a big piece, because what happens when the teachers aren’t there? Do you know how to use this in less structured environments, at home with your siblings at home?

How do you make sure vulnerable students are getting emotional support and give time for that reflection and self growth but also provide a rigorous education that meets your school’s standards?

The work that we are doing is ensuring that the kids have academic improvement and success. Because they feel cared for and comfortable, ultimately students feel successful, and when you feel successful you will apply yourself more. Right now, learning is rigorous. It’s not what it was 10 years ago. So we ask kids to think very deeply to be critical thinkers. The text that they have to read is more rigorous, ones that require problem solving (and) for kids to think for themselves. And so that by itself is taxing. And that kind of work can be really stressful. A lot of the work we’ve done is around test anxiety. We want kids to know that this is just a piece of information, you need to know where you’re doing well, where you’re struggling so that they can address areas of challenge with a little more positivity. But we see the effects of it in our academic performance.

How have you measured the success of the program?

When I first became principal it wasn’t like we were having emergencies necessarily, but we were putting out a lot of fires. Kids were just coming in with issues, getting into fights, things like that. We also wanted to bring in more of the parents, because there were some that we wanted to be more engaged. We have seen an increase in test scores, but I use personal growth stories as my data–that’s how I know that this works. When I have those success stories, when I see students that really needed it, use it and feel a change, that is the data. We didn’t actually see real, big changes until last year, when we were three years into using this new style of learning. There’s always work to be done, it’s an ongoing thing.

In your own words, what is emotional intelligence and why is it important to have?

To me, it means that you are aware of what you may be feeling at a certain moment and of how your feelings impact interactions with others. It’s about how self aware you are, how are you thinking about what you’re going to say or do before you do it, and about how you show compassion for others who are also thinking and feeling just like you. It’s about how you listen to others, how you see and recognize what others are giving you, and how you support others. We’ve been told that all we can do is control ourselves, and that we’re not responsible for other people. But I think through emotional intelligence, we are responsible for how we make people feel.

In what ways do you help take this learning outside of the classroom?

We send home activities for students to do with their families, for over vacation. It will be like, “check in with your family members on their moods for the week and on how everybody is feeling this week,” or “what was one time when you and your parents had a conflict and what did you do well or not do well.” We keep finding the means to engage the parents at home with it by having them come in and do stress relief workshops. I have students ask, “Can I have a mood meter for my mom? I think it will help her because she feels really stressed.” So that home/school piece is a really important part of what makes everything successful. We’re all supporting the kids, we’re raising them together.

In what other ways, do you help the parents learn as well, and what does that look like?

We trained a group of parent leaders in RULER, who helped us train other parents. Parents like hearing from other parents, so we wanted to make sure that it was presented to them as something they could relate to. I think that sometimes as educators we are guilty of using a lot of acronyms and indigestible words when we’re talking to families, and what we’ve decided to do is breaking it down to talking about how do they deal with stress. Kind of how we brought it to the parents is that we brought to the kids strategies on how to deal with stress. We did some yoga with them, breathing techniques, and then we just started talking to them about what kinds of emotion they go through in a day. They talk about getting kids ready, making trains, dealing with family members, and really getting out what they were dealing with as parents–all that stuff that nobody really asked them about before. Honestly, they were the most receptive group. I think talking to each other, in a place where we’re all supporting each other, creates that space that we need.

Describe a specific instance or an anecdote that you think is reflective of the changes that have happened since you have implemented these new practices. How did you see the impact?

A boy came to us in the second grade, and he had been on a safety transfer, which means that he had been in a situation that may not be safe for a child. They’re either in violent conflict with others, or they’re being bullied, or something’s happening where they need to be removed from where they are. At first we had a lot of emotional difficulties and poor relationships with his teachers, and even though he was only six or seven he had been suspended several times. His family had also shut down from the school connection because since they were constantly hearing negative information. The principal basically said “Look, there’s nothing you can do with him. It’s just too much, he’s violent, he bites, it’s just too much.” But he came to the school, and just through engaging him through some of the new practices he was able to self regulate. It impacted his focus and changed his ability to relate to others. The changes didn’t make him perfect or change who he is, but it gave him some tools to be successful and work with others. Once he had love and compassion and felt accepted in our community, all of those behaviors just disappeared. His family became more supportive and trusting and he graduated last year.

Teaching teachers

Mentors matter: Good teaching really can be passed down to student teachers, new research finds

PHOTO: Jessica Glazer
Janet Lo (left) and Stacey Gong-Zhang attend a training program for pre-K teachers.

Do student teachers learn more when they’re mentored by especially effective teachers?

The answer may seem obvious, but there’s been little research confirming as much. Until now.

Three studies released this year offer real evidence that good teaching can be passed down, in a sense, from mentor teacher to student teacher. In several cases, they find that the performance of the student teachers once they have their own full-time classrooms corresponds to the quality of the teacher they trained under.    

And as many teacher preparation programs face pressure to improve, the findings offer a common-sense prescription: invest in finding the most effective possible teachers to supervise their trainees.

“Taken together, the point is that teachers who are … effective appear to be very promising mentors,” said Matt Ronfeldt, a University of Michigan professor who co-authored all three papers.

One of the studies, published last month in the peer-reviewed journal Educational Researcher, examined thousands of student teachers between 2010 and 2015 who were subsequently hired by a Tennessee public school. (Getting the data to understand this was a multi-year undertaking, since there isn’t a centralized system connecting mentors with their student teachers.)  

It found that teachers tended to be better at raising students’ test scores if their supervising teacher was better than average, too. Similarly, new teachers scored better on classroom observation rubrics when they had been mentored by a teacher who also scored well on that same rubric.

There was no evidence that teachers with more years of experience, all else equal, were more effective as supervisors.

The researchers can’t definitively prove cause and effect, but the results suggest that the mentor teachers are imparting certain specific skills to their student teachers.

The effect was small, though: Having a supervising teacher who did particularly well on their observations or their test scores was comparable to about half the performance leap teachers make between their first and second years in the classroom. That’s not a huge difference, but research has found teachers make their steepest improvement in those years.

A similar study, released in January, focused on about 300 student teachers in Chicago Public Schools who were subsequently hired in the district. Again, the student teachers who had better mentor teachers, as measured by classroom observations, ended up with better observation scores themselves.

Here too, there was no clear benefit of having a more experienced supervisor.

A separate paper, published in April through the research organization CALDER, looked at a single teacher prep program, Tennessee Tech University, which allowed researchers to conduct an experiment with its student teacher placements.

After all of the supervising teachers and schools had been selected, researchers divided them into two categories: those likely to be effective mentors and those less likely to be. This was based on data on the teachers (their performance and years of experience) and the schools (staff retention numbers and student achievement growth). From there, the nearly 200 teachers were randomly assigned, allowing the researchers to conclusively determine whether being in that high-quality group mattered.

It did. The student teachers with better placements reported that their mentor teachers were better instructors, offered more frequent and better coaching, and provided more opportunities for them to practice. This analysis didn’t track the student teachers’ later performance, but they did report that they felt more prepared to teach themselves and to manage their future classrooms.

This study, the researchers conclude, “would make a strong case to school systems that the quality of placements is fundamental to the development of new teachers.”

The set of studies add to a small but growing body of research on the best ways to set teachers up for success. Previous research had linked higher-functioning placement schools to better results for student teachers. Teachers also seem to do better after having student taught at a school with similar demographics as the school where they go on to teach. And concerns that adding a student teacher to a classroom hurts students (by allowing an untrained teacher to take over for a high-performing one) seem mostly unfounded.

The latest findings aren’t especially surprising, but to Ronfeldt they’re still important.

“While that may be a ‘duh’ moment, the reality is that there [are] often assumptions like this in education, and I think having the research evidence to back it up is critical,” he said, pointing out that few states have requirements that mentor teachers have strong evaluation scores. “We can make all sorts of assumptions, as I have for other things, and find out the opposite.”

Want to read more about efforts to improve teacher preparation? See Chalkbeat stories on teacher residencies, a Texas program known as UTeach, the challenges of identifying successful programs, a teacher training program that has embraced “personalized learning,” Denver’s effort to ease the transition into the classroom, and New York City and Memphis programs to recruit more men of color into teaching.