Making the Grade

Can Better Teachers Turn Memphis Around?

Story by Carly Berwick

Illustration by Tim Gough

Published on May 28, 2012

The hottest buzzword in public education today is metrics. Everyone wants to quantify achievement, whether it’s through testing students, evaluating teachers or auditing district administrators. Of all these groups, however, it’s teachers who face the most scrutiny. And in Memphis, where average student scores on state tests hover in the 30th percentile, and less than 10 percent of students graduate from high school prepared for college, educators have been under a particularly bright light. Many American cities want to revamp their schools. But Memphis stands out because of the multiple forces of reform aligning at once. In 2008, a savvy school board and strong superintendent arrived, leading to more outside money — upwards of $100 million over several years — flowing to the district. The money all depends on the promise of this latest vision of progressive change to hit school systems around the country: teacher reform. This article explores the debate surrounding efforts, detailing results as well as challenges, all the while asking how these efforts will play out in the nation’s poorest metropolitan region. Education writer Carly Berwick asks the question city leaders around the country are asking: Can talented, committed teachers change an entire city?

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