I am the principal of Cherokee Elementary, a Memphis school where, not long ago, only 14 percent of students were proficient in math, and just 16 percent in reading. Three years later, after being labeled a state “priority school” and placed in the Shelby County School District Innovation Zone (“iZone”), the percentage of Cherokee students doing math and science at grade level has more than quadrupled; reading proficiency has more than doubled.
Cherokee is an iZone success story, and it is not alone. A recent Vanderbilt study found that priority schools placed in Tennessee’s district-run iZones have made significant progress. The study also suggests that schools placed in the state-run Achievement School District (ASD) have, on average, not matched those strong gains. This research has spawned a vigorous debate about how Tennessee should intervene in low-performing schools.
The truth is, there are no silver bullets in education. Achievement trends for both iZone and ASD schools contain considerable variability. Both types of schools have benefited from an infusion of resources, autonomy over hiring and curriculum, and an extended school day, yet some of these schools have nevertheless failed to make progress.
Such variability reveals an important lesson: Structural reforms can only take you so far. In the end, success always comes down to the teaching and learning that takes place in the classrooms. And for great teaching and learning to occur in every classroom across schools and districts, we need great school leaders.
This fact is born out when you examine the priority schools that have thrived: Strong school leadership has made the difference. Memphis, for instance, has invested in high-quality leadership training for the principals of its lowest performing schools. Not coincidentally, these schools are some of the fastest gaining in the state.
My experience at Cherokee is illustrative. As an iZone principal, having the freedom to hire my own staff was critically important, but without the training I received in New Leaders’ Aspiring Principals Program—a program brought in by the district—I would not have developed the necessary skills and strategies to select high-potential teachers and guide them to instructional excellence.
The reality is that uniformly outstanding educators are not lining up to teach at schools like Cherokee, with large proportions of high-poverty students and a history of poor performance. But I knew that if I hired teachers with a deep belief that all children can and will achieve, and a willingness to learn, there was nothing we couldn’t accomplish.
When I see Cherokee teachers struggling to help their students, I review student data with them and pinpoint areas of growth; I model instruction for them; I pair them with a strong teacher leader. I employ the entire arsenal of techniques and skills I learned through my training and, together, we find a way.
Today, 70 percent of the teachers at Cherokee are rated Level 5—the highest-possible effectiveness rating on Tennessee’s TVAAS teacher evaluation system. And, as Cherokee’s test scores powerfully demonstrate, consistently great instruction has paid off for our kids.
Here’s the point of my story: without leaders who possess the technical prowess to build a strong school culture and implement systems for helping teachers improve, structural changes will not bring about the dramatic gains we seek.
There are important lessons states can learn from Tennessee’s experience. Last month, President Obama signed the Every Student Succeeds Act, a federal education law that ushers in a new era of local control: states no longer have to impose one of several federally dictated “turnaround” strategies on low-performing schools. Instead, states and districts are tasked with developing their own approach.
States should follow Tennessee’s lead by putting in place conditions—like those enjoyed by the iZone schools—that make success possible. But whether or not those conditions yield progress will ultimately depend on whether districts commit to developing great school leaders as Memphis has done, so that every school is led by a principal with the capacity to elevate instruction in every classroom and put all our students on a path to success.