David Waters

David Waters is Distinguished Journalist in Residence and assistant director of the Institute for Public Service Reporting at the University of Memphis.

Costly failures come with lesson: Reading success begins at birth

Special Report: Memphis' Reading Test

By Published: May 17, 2019 12:34 AM CT

A decade ago, the Obama administration and the Gates Foundation upped the ante on national public education reform.

Memphis and Tennessee went all in.

The state adopted Common Core standards, established the takeover Achievement School District, launched a Charter School Growth Fund and overhauled the way it measures the performance of schools and teachers.

The local school district overhauled the way it hires, evaluates, pays, places and replaces its teachers.

Tennessee was the first state to win the Obama administration's Race to the Top grant. The prize: $500 million.

Memphis was one of three cities to get a Gates Foundation grant for its new initiative, Intensive Partnerships for Effective Teaching. The prize: $90 million.

A decade later, three of four Memphis third-graders, and two in three across Tennessee, still aren't reading at grade level.

"We haven’t seen the large impact we had hoped for," Bill and Melinda Gates wrote in a letter last year to the philanthropic community.

Last year, a Gates-funded study by the Rand Corp. said the foundation's efforts to improve teacher effectiveness in Memphis and two other cities "did not achieve its stated goals for students, particularly low-income minority students..."

A federal analysis came to the same conclusion about the Obama administration's $7 billion Race to the Top program. It changed policies but had little or no impact on school performance.

"This outcome reminds us that turning around our lowest-performing schools is some of the hardest, most complex work in education and that we don’t yet have solid evidence on effective, replicable, comprehensive school improvement strategies,” Dorie Nolt, an Education Department spokesperson, said in early 2017.

Similar assessments have been made of the Clinton administration’s National Education Goals, the Bush administration’s No Child Left Behind and the Gates-funded Common Core Standards.

Decades of top-down K-12 education reforms, directed by presidents and billionaires, have succeeded in raising national standards and stakes.

Billions of government and philanthropic dollars have funded new curricula and standardized tests, teacher evaluation systems, charter schools and takeover schools.

The Institute for Public Service Reporting is based at the University of Memphis and supported financially by U of M, private grants and donations made through the University Foundation. Its work is published by The Daily Memphian through a paid use agreement. Learn more about the Institute’s unique model to support quality, Memphis-based journalism while helping provide hands-on training for the next generation of journalists. Follow the Institute on Facebook or Twitter @ipsrum

They haven't made much of a dent in the third-grade reading gap or any other measures of student performance.

Socioeconomic achievement gaps are the same as they were 50 years ago. Extremely disadvantaged students remain three to four years behind their more affluent peers, according to a new study by Harvard and Stanford researchers.

But the failures of top-down national reforms have pushed education advocates here to find bottom-up answers tailored for Memphis.

"You can't import education reform," said Dr. Beverly Cross, who holds the Lillian and Morrie Moss Chair of Excellence in Urban Education at the University of Memphis. "What might work in Washington or California or Texas doesn't necessarily work in South Memphis or Frayser or Hickory Hill.

"How do we design a public education that meets the unique needs of each city, each neighborhood, each social group and each child? That's the challenge."


A teacher holds up a drawing of a shiny red apple. There's a lower case 'a' written just below it.

The children say the name of the letter. A.

Next, using their first two fingers (the pencil holders), they draw an imaginary line left to right and say the name of the object. Apple.

Next, holding their first two fingers against their throats, they make the sound of the letter. /A/

"Not ahh," the teacher says, emphasizing the /h/ sound they are adding incorrectly to the shorter, clipped /a/ sound. "A."

The teacher is using Orton-Gillingham, a multisensory approach to phonics instruction. It teaches children to use their eyes, ears, hands and motions to link sounds to letters.

"Research shows that there's a clear and troubling link between the toxic stresses of poverty and reading ability. We believe that all children who struggle to read should have access to the same specialized approaches to literacy instruction that affluent children have."
Dr. Krista Johnson,
ALLMemphis executive director

It's often used one-on-one in more specialized settings to help children who are struggling to learn to read for any number of reasons, including dyslexia.

ALLMemphis, an education nonprofit formed in 2017, is training teachers at several Shelby County charter schools to use Orton-Gillingham in their classrooms.

The ALLMemphis co-founders, two former Bodine School teachers, believe the approach can help kids who start school with spoken-language deficits due to poverty, chronic stress or trauma.

"Research shows that there's a clear and troubling link between the toxic stresses of poverty and reading ability," Dr. Krista Johnson, executive director of ALLMemphis, said.

"We believe that all children who struggle to read should have access to the same specialized approaches to literacy instruction that affluent children have."

ALLMemphis is one of a growing number of nonprofit organizations dedicated to solving some of the city's biggest education problems.

That includes closing the massive third-grade reading gap.

If there were a "Silicon Valley" for public urban education, a place where talented, highly educated people from across the country were working to spur economic and social innovation, it would be Memphis.

And Crosstown Concourse would be its hub. The long-abandoned, recently reclaimed "urban village" is home to nearly two dozen such organizations.

Some of the education startups were launched here, like ALLMemphis, Whole Child Strategies, the Collective and Memphis Teacher Residency.

Others are affiliated with larger national organizations, such as Stand for Children, Instruction Partners, Education Pioneers, Relay Graduate School of Education and Teach for America.

All are working to address complex and persistent inequities in local public education.

"Those inequities have created a whole new education ecosystem here, a sort of Silicon Valley for urban education," Tosha Downey, director of advocacy for Memphis Education Fund, another Crosstown resident, said.

"There’s a status quo that’s fighting to stay the same, and there's a reform narrative that’s fighting to change things. It’s hard, because a lot of this work focuses on the adults and it really needs to focus on the kids."


The city's new education ecosystem didn't just happen.

It's a result of decades of public education reform, directed by politicians and philanthropists who have pushed for constant change with intermittent success.

It began in the early 1980s with "A Nation at Risk," a hyperbolic report designed to stave off the Reagan administration's plan to shelve the U.S. Department of Education.

"Our nation is at risk," a federal commission warned. "If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war."

It was an alarming — some say alarmist — call to arms in the form of more federal oversight of public education reform.

"American schools don’t need vast new sums of money as much as they need fundamental reforms," President Reagan said in 1984.

Over the next three decades, American schools got both.

"A Nation at Risk" coined the term "achievement gap." It recommended more rigorous reading and math standards and curricula, and more standardized tests to measure achievement.

Early advocates included Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander, who later became U.S. Secretary of Education, and Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton and his wife, Hillary.

They pushed to expand the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), a tool that measured the progress of students over time, into the "The Nation's Report Card."

The new NAEP issued state-by-state comparisons using three vague terms to define student performance: Basic, Proficient, and Advanced.

"Basic" meant grade-level, but in 2002, the Bush administration's No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law set the bar at "proficient."

Schools and districts that failed to make "adequately yearly progress" — according to "rigorous" standardized test scores — would be punished.

No state ever cleared the new higher bar.

In 2009, the Obama administration declared that No Child Left Behind was broken. The administration invited states to apply for billions of dollars in Race to the Top grants by coming up with their own reform plans.

But to get the money, those reform plans had to include higher academic standards, teacher evaluations based on student test scores, interventions in the lowest-performing schools, more charter schools.

Meanwhile, Obama’s Education Department announced a new $1.1 billion partnership with a dozen major national foundations, including Gates, Walton and Ford.

The goal was to "ensure that innovations have long-term impact and become a part of the broader education landscape."

No landscape was more affected than Memphis.


In 2012, the ASD began taking over some of the lowest-performing schools in Memphis. The Memphis district launched its own "Innovation Zone" schools.

A year later, Memphis City Schools surrendered its charter and became part of Shelby County Schools.

A year later, the county's six suburbs seceded and formed separate school systems.

As the number of suburban, ASD and public charter schools increased, the shrinking SCS had to cut its budget, close schools and lay off teachers.

"In order to create a system of great schools where all Memphis kids are on the path to college and career success we need a great teacher in every classroom."
Chris Barbic, ASD superintendent

Local foundations — the Hyde Foundation, the Assisi Foundation and two others now in Crosstown, the Poplar Foundation and Pyramid Peak — pushed for more local innovation and collaboration.

In 2013, they convened dozens of local education leaders from SCS, ASD, charters, local universities and nonprofits. The goal was to find ways to recruit, develop and place better teachers and principals in the lowest-performing schools in Memphis.

A few months later, SCS Supt. Dorsey Hopson and ASD Supt. Chris Barbic, announced the formation of a new local education nonprofit: Teacher Town USA.

“Memphis stands at the center of some of the most ambitious education reform in the nation," Hopson said. "The idea of establishing Memphis as Teacher Town USA will help us immensely as we build a pipeline to hire and keep the great teachers our students need to succeed."

Barbic seconded the notion. "In order to create a system of great schools where all Memphis kids are on the path to college and career success we need a great teacher in every classroom," he said.

So far, results are mixed.

Innovative teacher licensing programs such as TFA, MTR, Relay and new efforts at Rhodes College and the University of Memphis have recruited and trained thousands of new K-12 teachers.

But since 2006, low-performing teachers in grades 3 through 5 across the state were more likely to be reassigned to non-tested K-2 grades, according to a Vanderbilt University study released in February.

And the Gates Foundation’s top-down “teacher effectiveness” initiative "did not achieve its stated goals for students, particularly low-income minority students,” a Rand Corp. study concluded last year.

"By the end of 2014-2015, student outcomes were not dramatically better than outcomes in similar sites that did not participate" in the project.

In 2016, the Gates Foundation acknowledged that Common Core and other top-down national education reforms have come up short.

"Unfortunately, our foundation underestimated the level of resources and support required for our public education systems to be well-equipped to implement the standards," Sue Desmond-Hellmann, the Gates Foundation's CEO, wrote in 2016.

"This has been a challenging lesson for us to absorb, but we take it to heart. The mission of improving education in America is both vast and complicated, and the Gates Foundation doesn’t have all the answers."

No one does. But a lot of people are working to find answers that work for Memphis.


Porter-Leath opened its doors as an "orphan asylum" in the 1850s. It changed as the needs of children changed.

The orphanage became a group home for foster kids, then a welfare center serving pregnant teens, homeless kids and other children in need.

Now it's a vital part of the city's new education ecosystem, serving children from birth to kindergarten with programs such as Books from Birth, Early Head Start and Head Start.

As a result, Porter-Leath has become a key component in an unprecedented effort to improve early literacy and close the third-grade reading gap starting from birth.

Earlier this year, city, county and nonprofit leaders announced plans to establish a new education system for children ages 0-5.

It's called First 8 Memphis.

"We know that success in preparing children for kindergarten is crucial for children to read on grade level by third grade, which is one of the strongest indicators for poverty-risk later in life," said Mark Sturgis, a former White Station high school teacher and executive director of Seeding Success, a nonprofit that is coordinating the effort.

<strong>Mark Sturgis</strong>

Mark Sturgis

"If we have this plan in place by 2020, we will be serving nearly all at-risk families in Shelby County during the first five years of their child’s life."

The effort will involve the entire local education ecosystem — government, schools, health care, philanthropy, and a variety of nonprofits including Porter-Leath.

The goal is to engage and support parents to help children prepare cognitively, socially and emotionally for kindergarten, and propel them to be grade-level readers by third grade — age 8.

First 8 Memphis goals:

  • Start a new "light touch" program to contact the 5,800 families of children born into poverty every year in Memphis. A registered nurse would connect families to the 0-5 education system.
  • Double from 1,000 to 2,000 the number of families served by home visitation programs that help new mothers and newborns with nutrition, health care and child development information.
  • Quadruple from 1,000 to 4,000 the number of children served by high-quality, three-star day care centers that help kids with social, emotional and academic development.
  • Increase from 7,000 to 8,500 (full enrollment) the number of children in high-quality, needs-based pre-K programs.

Such a system would cost about $40 million a year, but much of the infrastructure already is in place.

Memphis and Shelby County are on the verge of fully funding quality, needs-based pre-K for all 4-year-olds who qualify.

Porter-Leath already is serving about 5,000 children each year at 14 locations, not counting various SCS and ASD schools.

The agency is working with LeBonheur and the Early Success Coalition to provide home visits.

With county government to provide Early Head Start for children ages 0-3.

And with SCS and ASD to provide Head Start and pre-K for 3-and 4-year-olds.

"Literacy starts from birth," said Kelley Nichols, who taught at local charter schools before becoming vice president of Porter-Leath's Teacher Excellence Program. "Eighty percent of a child's brain develops in the first five years. Kindergarten is too late to start thinking about reading."


No one believes that more than Tosha Downey.

She grew up in 38126, the poorest ZIP code in Memphis.

When she was 3, her mother and father wanted to get her in a Head Start program. They coached her not to let on that she knew her letters and numbers and name and address, so she could qualify.

"They needed to work, and I wanted to go to a good school," she said.

Downey attended low-performing schools in her neighborhood. She didn't realize she was getting a substandard education until her parents helped her transfer to an optional high school. That helped her go on to college and law school.

"I was one of the 23% of kids who manage to escape poverty, but I saw how social and political policies conspire to lock people in poverty,” she said. “If we're serious about getting people out of poverty, we need to address those policies."

Downey spent 15 years addressing those policies in Chicago with various education organizations. She moved back home in 2015 to work for the Memphis Education Fund.

The Memphis Education Fund, formerly known as Teacher Town USA, was founded in 2014 as a local education philanthropy.

It gets funding from local and national foundations such as the Hyde Family Foundation and the Gates Foundation.

It provides grants, Crosstown office space, and other forms of support to a wide range of local and national education nonprofit organizations.

All are part of the city's new education brain trust.

"We've gotten smarter about how we address these issues, we have a community willing to collaborate, and now we have a road map to do it," Sturgis. said “The earlier we reach kids, the better.”

Early literacy has become a local priority, thanks to the work of Porter-Leath, teacher training programs such as Memphis Teacher Residency, and ALLMemphis and other efforts that focus on early child development.

"I was one of the 23% of kids who manage to escape poverty, but I saw how social and political policies conspire to lock people in poverty. If we're serious about getting people out of poverty, we need to address those policies."
Tosha Downey,
Memphis Education Fund 
director of advocacy

The education ecosystem is becoming more "trauma-informed," because of the work of the ACE Awareness Foundation, the Urban Child Institute, and other organizations that address the impact of poverty and chronic stress and trauma on children.

There are more efforts underway to improve local schools by helping families and neighborhoods in distress, through such programs as Whole Child Strategies, Communities in Schools, the Collective and Seeding Success, not to mention Agape United Way of the Mid-South's "Driving the Dream" campaign.

Local and state political leaders are focusing more resources and attention on inequities in funding, aging facilities, and old enrollment procedures, thanks to the advocacy efforts of Memphis Education Trust, Stand for Children, the Tennessee Educational Equity Coalition and Memphis Lift.

Is it working?

"I hate to say it, but it's still too early to know," Downey said.

"A lot of talented people are doing a lot of good and creative and innovative things. But unless you're going to eliminate poverty, it's going to take time. We can’t stop now. Education is the long game."

About the author: Before joining the Institute for Public Service Reporting at the University of Memphis as its assistant director, David Waters worked for The Commercial Appeal for more than 35 years. He held a variety of reporting and editing positions, including religion and education reporter, columnist, and editorial page editor. He has been honored for his education reporting by the Tennessee School Boards Association, the Tennessee Press Association, and the Tennessee Commission on Children and Youth. His wife has taught in local public and charter elementary schools for 25 years. His daughter teaches kindergarten in Memphis. 


Shelby County Schools Race to the Top Gates Foundation

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