In the state of Tennessee Memphis Schools are lagging behind. With 80-81% of Tennessee’s 4th grade students performing on grade level in both math and reading, the children in Memphis Schools are well behind in the 63-66% range. Dropout rates also plague Tennessee’s largest district. 32.5% of students will drop out of Memphis Schools before graduating.
When the “No Child Left Behind Act” (NCLBA) was signed into law in 2002, every school in the nation became accountable for reaching a minimal level of competency. In 2004 the Tennessee Department of Education labeled 148 of Memphis Schools failures by those standards.
To address these concerns Memphis Schools have focused on math and literacy initiatives, adoptions of new textbooks, and better teacher training. In Memphis Schools, where 71% of students qualify for free or reduced lunches, the impact of teacher development in raising test scores is critical. How much influence teachers have on student achievement, and the quality of those professionals working in struggling schools, has been a topic of debate in Memphis Schools for years.
A recent $10 million federal grant with the Peabody Center for Education Policy may help clarify some of these issues. Memphis Schools could eventually benefit, or change course, depending on the finding of trials to be funded by the grant. The five-year grant will investigate the correlation between significantly increased teacher pay and student achievement. That means a difference of several thousand versus several hundred dollars per year.
How well do Memphis Schools pay their teachers? Well, that depends. When adjusted for cost of living Memphis Schools look pretty good. Scholastic’s Instructor Magazine recently put Memphis Schools in their Top 5 list for cities where teacher pay goes the furthest. The thing is, no one is really sure how important that is. What will it mean for Memphis Schools if the grant finds little correlation between teacher pay and student achievement? It could mean teachers just aren’t motivated by money. It might mean that home environment trumps schools environment. Or it could mean something else all together.
Meanwhile, Memphis Schools are trying to improve their standing by creating better community involvement and reassessing educational goals and outcomes. Ultimately, educators and administrator make daily decisions without full knowledge of areas like teachers incentives. Maybe more studies like this one will start to bridge the gap between what we think and what we know about education in Memphis Schools and in general.