As Memphis Shelby County Schools prepares to open its doors for the upcoming year, TSD education columnist Curtis Weathers outlines a few high-priority issues that could make life extremely difficult in the district if not managed appropriately.

This school year will be a pivotable year for students, teachers, and administrators in school systems across the state and throughout our nation.

For those of us who keep a close watch on local as well as national trends in our educational systems, one must be concerned with the current direction many of our school systems are headed.

Public education has been plagued with some of the most challenging issues one can imagine.

Book bans, the great resignation, critical race theory, and legislation to end African-American and Black history programs, just to name a few.

I speak with educators daily, and quite frankly, I’ve never been more concerned about the state of our public-school systems.

As we prepare to greet this year’s class of students, there are a few high-priority issues that could make life extremely difficult in our school system in Memphis if not managed appropriately.

At the very top of the list is the search for a new superintendent. My hope is that our board can put together a well-orchestrated search that will help find a competent, dynamic leader, who can turn our school system around and point it in the right direction.

Last year’s search process was a disaster. But now that interim superintendent Toni Williams has withdrawn her name from consideration, we can look forward to a fresh, new process going forward.

My fear, however, is that high-quality candidates may have been frightened away because of all the drama surrounding the search process earlier this year.

Attracting high-quality superintendents to a school system requires a combination of several factors that appeal to experienced and talented education leaders.

These types of superintendents are attracted to school systems with a supportive and visionary school board.

They want to work with a board that understands education’s complexities, supports innovation, fosters a positive and collaborative work environment, and has a long-term strategic vision for the district.

You can decide for yourself whether Memphis-Shelby County Schools is that kind of school system.

Secondly, the teacher shortage will have a devastating effect on the quality of classroom instruction in our schools.

This is a recurring story each year, and each year the situation gets worse. Teachers not only are leaving the profession in record numbers, but enrollment in teacher education programs in our colleges and universities drops precipitously each year.

Last year at this time, the district had more than 200 vacant teacher positions. This school year may see a similar number (maybe higher) as school doors open for business next week.

Teaching is a challenging and demanding occupation. Teaching in an urban environment adds another layer of difficulty and stress.

Teachers will continue to leave the profession in search of better compensation and a more gratifying work environment. Districts must be more proactive and creative to turn this trend around.

Lastly, can Memphis-Shelby County Schools expect better performance on TCAP exams this school year? If so, how much better?

It’s been difficult trying to locate district performance targets, which usually are established at the beginning of each school year.

But a 10 percent increase in performance across the board is not an unreasonable target to consider, given how low the performance levels are now.

The chart with this week’s column provides us with a glimpse of what a 10 percent increase in performance would look like compared to previous years’ performances.

TCAP scores have been stagnant over the last several years, taking into consideration, of course, the COVID effect.

The performance illustrated in the chart above is just an example, but it is not unreasonable to expect “significantly” higher gains from our schools in the 2023-24 school year.

Surely there are more than 20 percent of district students in any given year who can perform at the “Meet” or “Exceed” level on the English TCAP exams.

The three priorities listed here are critical issues for Memphis-Shelby County Schools going forward.

Hopefully, our school board will complete the search process without too much drama and confusion and find a very capable school superintendent who can lead this incredibly challenging school system of ours.

While district leaders are doing everything possible to find teachers, the reality is several schools will be starting the school year without qualified teachers in some particularly important subject areas, such as math, English, science, and even special education.

And while MSCS has made some performance gains overall on state TCAP exams, those gains have been modest at best.

Again, the start of a new school year always brings with it excitement and great anticipation. This year won’t be any different.


(Follow me, TSD’s education columnist, on Twitter @curtisweathers. Email me at [email protected].)