The most popular public official in Memphis isn't on this year's ballots. She's running Memphis City Schools.
So far, Superintendent Carol Johnson's approval ratings haven't translated into higher public confidence for the district itself. That's too bad, because she's slowly winning some key battles in the ultimate war -- transforming a culture that fights change and assumes that it can simply wait her out.
It's the nature of large public bureaucracies to co-opt the language of their leaders -- whether it's Shelby County Government and Mayor A C Wharton or Memphis City Schools and Johnson -- while dragging their feet in making real change. With a bureaucracy three times larger than either local government, Johnson faces a culture three times more determined to protect the status quo.
The 16,500 employees of Memphis City Schools have not forgotten the object lesson of Gerry House. Superintendent from 1992 to 2000, she attracted national attention for her reform programs, but they were summarily thrown out when she left. The employees also know that the average tenure of urban superintendents is three years, and Dr. Johnson begins her third year this month.
Meanwhile, the public largely believes Memphis City Schools can't be changed anyway. It's an attitude bolstered by media coverage magnifying every problem and comparing MCS to Shelby County Schools, as if they're truly comparable. The county district does nothing to discourage the parallels -- or lack of them -- because they create the illusion that SCS is exceptional, although when compared to similarly suburban districts, it's essentially average.
Johnson's pulpit is just not bully enough to cut through this clutter with the story of what's really going on:
• Teach For America has 40 top graduates of top colleges teaching students in low-performing schools and plans to expand.
• The New Teacher Project is improving teacher quality by doubling the number of applicants for teaching jobs and quadrupling the percentage with master's degrees.
• New Leaders for New Schools has 45 people becoming a new breed of principals who are leaders, rather than managers, and who know how to improve grades and graduation rates.
Meanwhile, Johnson beefed up her staff to pursue the more dramatic role she foresees for Memphis City Schools in neighborhood redevelopment and smart growth. In particular, her plans for schools to be shared with neighborhood groups and for developing former school sites have potential to be national models.
Her Five-year Facilities Master Plan put the district squarely at the center of public discussions about schools' capital needs after decades of the suburban district dominating decisions. The plan details $488 million in needs for the district's 176 schools, permanently destroying the myth that the state ADA (Average Daily Attendance) law results in Memphis City Schools receiving a windfall when the county district gets money for new schools.
In setting parent involvement as a top priority and challenging principals to think of new ways to engage parents, she embraced the Community Report Card to Parents developed by Partners In Public Education (PIPE).
All these programs dramatically make the point that it's a new day at Memphis City Schools. That said, it's unreasonable to expect city schools, in seven hours a day, to counter the cruel realities that grip so many of its students for the other 17.
Urban Child Institute research paints a graphic portrait of the children in city classrooms: 51 percent live in poverty, 64 percent were born to unmarried mothers, 17 percent have sex before their 13th birthday and 67 percent by high school, 61 percent don't live in two-parent households, and 20 percent have seriously considered suicide.
It's not surprising that the district has problems. In truth, it may be more surprising that it does as well as it does. That's a message that Johnson will never deliver, because if her programs are anything, they are characterized by their ambition and lack of excuses.
However, to close the achievement gap of Memphis students, it's going to take more than better schools. Research shows that although school quality matters in students' academic performance, what matters more are the backgrounds and resources of their families. That's why in the end, standards-based testing, No Child Left Behind mandates, and vouchers aren't the answers, because they do nothing to support, nurture, and strengthen families.
No one understands this better than Johnson. That's why her district is more involved in other community programs than ever before, including some focused on children's first years, and others aimed at the middle-school years that make or break many students and the high-school years that take such a toll on so many African-American boys that they simply give up and drop out.
These are hard times for urban superintendents, but Johnson continues to aim high, seeing a day when the lessons of Memphis will have application nationwide.