With the Memphis City schools system consolidation issue perhaps the most important one Memphians face, Dr. Kriner Cash addressed the Midtown Republican Club Tuesday night to discuss what’s going on.
Introduced by Betty Mallott, the District 2 School board representative, Dr. Cash said “What can we do to improve education is the key issue going forward. It’s what we have to do for us to be competitive.”
Cash continued. “It’s about city wide reform. To say it’s a tale of two systems is a false dichotomy. We all need to get better.”
Dr. Cash noted that we have “a lot of school choice in Shelby County: private, Catholic, charter and public schools and I’d like to hear what they all say.” Things like online classes, longer days and home schooling should be considered, too. “I support home schooling,” he said. “The parents are the first teachers.”
Cash likes the move by the Tennessee legislature to change teacher tenure from 3 to 5 years. “It will make it more rigorous to get in,” he said. He is against the move to stop collective bargaining by the teacher union, however. “I’m not for abolishing it all. Some parts such as working conditions, school hours and routines might suffer. Charter schools can turn into sweat shops. I am considering closing the oldest charter school which has been here for eight years.”
Neither does he endorse vouchers. “I’ve got a problem with public money used for private schools with no control over them. It’s a problem of equity,” Cash said. “They can kick you out” and most students, he finds, cannot afford to stay in them.
The Memphis City Schools Superintendent talked about the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation grant and how it is being used to improve education. They have a four point plan.
“First we have to define what great teaching is; to measure it and evaluate it and we’ve done this. About 29,000 teachers are evaluated four times every year and new ones six times a year. Memphis City Schools are ahead of everyone in the country in this.”
Number two is to make smarter decisions about who teaches. “In the past, 40% of teachers would leave in the first three years. We didn’t even do exit interviews.” Since a revamp, Cash cites that this summer 10,000 applied and 1,800 were out of the pool which means “a higher caliber candidate is walking in the door now, an improvement from three years ago.”
Thirdly, Cash wants better support to retain teachers. “We want better pay for veteran teachers. We want them to be distributed across the system and to be mentors for new teachers so that they have an incentive to stay in the classroom.”
Lastly, they seek to build a culture that supports effective teaching. “I told the Gateses that we have to look at the context where teachers work. Is it supportive?” Students play a role in this as well. “We started a student envoy program. It targets who might have tipped toward trouble, then train them to do certain duties around school.” This can help the troublemakers behave and those who need attention and don’t get it at home will get it at school.
All this is done in the context of cost cutting, according to Dr. Cash. “I’m always asking how can we avoid costs, cut costs and generate more revenue,” he said. “I want to be more efficient.” Since Memphis City Schools has “a program for everything, that makes it hard. Some students cost from $100,000 to $300,000. Some special needs require a person to help them on to a special bus sent to get them, then a person to help them on and off the bus and a special teacher. We have 2,500 kids who cost $10,000-$25,000, then we have gifted and CLUE students. In the merger we’ll have to begin to sort through all of this and things like optional schools for music, etc.”
Still, Cash sees it as “an exciting time. We’re about to head into a chapter we haven’t had before.”