The American Association of School Administrators named Gerry House superintendent of the year in 1999. House was hailed by her peers as a visionary, in part for insisting that all 165 schools in her Memphis school district implement a comprehensive reform model. She also won one of the coveted McGraw education prizes for this work. On Monday, however, House's successor, Superintendent Johnnie Watson, announced that he was abandoning all 18 of the reform models that were put into place in the district's schools in the 1990s.
According to an internal study conducted by the district (not, unfortunately, available on the district's website), only three of the 18 whole-school designs raised student achievement in Memphis: Core Knowledge, Voices of Love and Freedom, and Widening Horizons through Literacy. Teachers complained to district researchers that the models were not appropriate for students who needed more time on the basics, and also took too much time and required too much paperwork. Some in the district noted that the House initiative's downfall may have been the fact that she required every school to adopt a reform model. This may have been rash, particularly in the days before those models were fully tested. On the other hand, one may doubt the wisdom of a district trying to solve a problem caused by a one-size-fits-all policy (making every school embrace a comprehensive reform model) by imposing another one-size-fits-all policy (dumping all the models). One also wants to know how much of this newest policy results from "model failure" and how much from "old habits balk at change."
The superintendent isn't the only one in Memphis to embrace uniformity. Earlier this spring the school board heatedly debated a proposal to establish a KIPP Academy in the district. On June 5, the board voted to bring KIPP to Memphis. The next day some hostile legislators asked Tennessee's attorney general to review the board's contract with KIPP to see if it violates state law since charter schools aren't yet legal in Tennessee. As the editorial page editor of the Memphis Commercial Appeal wrote, "Given the problems [in the district], it might seem inconceivable that anyone would oppose experiments, such as charter schools and KIPP academies, aimed at enhancing choices and quality of instruction in city schools.... Yet such obstruction, motivated by political rather than educational concerns, remains far too prevalent."
"School reform put to test, now to rest," by Aimee Edmondson and Michael Erskine, Memphis Commercial Appeal, June 20, 2001
"Are we playing hooky? Without action, we will fail city, county schools" by David Kushma, Memphis Commercial Appeal, June 10, 2001