In 2009, the state passed legislation that allowed districts to use the Tennessee Value-Added Assessment System as one criterion to evaluate teachers. The tool gives feedback to school leaders and teachers on student progress and assesses the influence of schooling on that progress. The assessment system allows districts to follow student achievement over time and provides schools with a longitudinal view of student performance. In the future, it will also help dictate how Memphis City Schools teachers will be compensated.
The federal dollars have been like a lifesaver, given the economic realities of the state in recent years. “If we had not been aggressive about going after these competitive grant opportunities at a time when we were seeing fiscal retrenchment, it would be catastrophic,” says Cash, who had to cut $66 million out of the city’s education budget three years ago.
So far, it seems to be working. In the two years since the city implemented Prep Academies to accelerate graduation for students who are over age for their grades, the district’s graduation rate went from 62.1% to 70.8% between the 2008–09 and the 2009–10 school years. Prep Academies students have longer school hours and an 11-month school year, among other differences. The graduation rate at one of the city’s low-performing high schools, Booker T. Washington, increased from 55% up to nearly 82% over four years. As a result of their progress in preparing students to graduate college- and career-ready, the school won the 2011 national Race to the Top High School Commencement Challenge, a reward that included having President Obama speak at their graduation. “The nature of our interventions helped with the graduation rate. These were students who had failed repeatedly in the early grades. We’ve graduated more than 1,000 students in the last two to three years who ordinarily would have dropped out,” says Cash. “We think over the next three to four years the college retention and college readiness rate will improve. But it will take about 10 years to see the kind of change that will make everyone proud.”
(Continued on next page)