Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

Shelby County Schools Keep Focus on Teaching, Learning

January 22, 2014

This post was originally published by The Commercial Appeal.

All Tennesseans should be proud that the state is leading the nation in student achievement gains, but teachers should be especially proud because they made it happen.

I was spending the day with teachers in Memphis when the results of the 2012 National Assessment of Educational Progress came out in November. I can hardly explain the excitement I felt just being there. The NAEP — also known as the “Nation’s Report Card” — showed that Tennessee students improved in both of the areas and grades tested — English/Language Arts and Math in fourth and eighth grades. Tennessee’s progress places it first among the states in improvement from 2011 to 2012.

 Shelby County elevates strong, respected teachers into leadership positions so they can mentor and guide colleagues while also continuing their classroom teaching.And while that is impressive, teachers know the progress students have made isn’t measured only by NAEP scores. Students also have improved literacy and math skills through their work in the classroom and on the state assessments over the last few years. The evidence of increased student achievement is starting to accumulate.

Frankly, I’m not surprised.

Since our partnership with the Memphis City Schools began four years ago, the College Ready Education Team at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has closely watched and learned. Memphis City Schools is now Shelby County Schools, but one thing that hasn’t changed is an unwavering focus on teaching and learning.

Indeed, your district leaders and teachers have designed and implemented a ground-breaking approach to fostering high-quality instruction. Shelby County’s Teacher and Leader Effectiveness focus combines what I like to call “high supports and high demands.” It elevates strong, respected teachers into leadership positions so they can mentor and guide colleagues while also continuing their classroom teaching. Teacher evaluation is focused on feedback and based on a number of factors including peer observations using a teacher-designed tool, student growth and achievement, stakeholder perception and professional learning. Finally, teachers receive rewards, career opportunities and recognition for their accomplishments. Shelby County puts it simply as: “Supports. Feedback. Rewards.”

Shelby County is becoming a model for how to put teachers front and center in education. It is a commitment I feel personally, one that is rooted in my own teaching experience. The district’s teaching effectiveness efforts have informed statewide education initiatives and been a model for thoughtful state legislation that uses multiple measures of teaching effectiveness. It has also been highlighted in reports by nationally respected researchers at Rand Corporation, American Institutes for Research and the Measures of Effective Teaching Project.

But let’s make no mistake. I’m not saying these changes are perfect. They aren’t — yet! There are imperfections and, at times, insomnia-inducing frustrations. It can be incredibly difficult, as most big shifts are. What is remarkable is the response of Shelby County teachers to the challenges. They are a leading example of how to approach deep education improvement efforts — adjusting as they go based on what they are learning, stepping up and taking control of their profession, and demonstrating collaboration at its best.

 Shelby County teachers are leading examples of how to approach deep education improvement efforts — adjusting as they go based on what they are learning, stepping up and taking control of their profession, and demonstrating collaboration at its best.I saw this firsthand at a Shelby County teacher meeting last fall devoted to elevating and celebrating effective teachers and teaching. Funded by the Gates Foundation, the event was designed and led by Shelby County teachers for Shelby County teachers.

It was a terrific illustration of how teachers in the district are defining, leading and engaging in their own professional growth, learning and improvement. I heard groups of teachers talking about strategies for implementing the new Common Core Standards. I saw teachers thinking through how to give constructive feedback as coaches to their peers. And, I experienced district leaders intently listening to teachers grapple with and provide feedback on the classroom observation tool.

Shelby County is placing teaching into the hands of teachers. I am confident this is the most powerful thing we at the Gates Foundation can do for the teaching profession. Teacher-led tools. Teacher-led supports. Teacher-led networks. This adds up to a very different vision for education—one that Shelby County, Tennessee, is showing to be possible. 

 
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