Citywide Education Progress Report

Key Takeaways: System Reforms

Many organizations in Memphis are trying to improve educational opportunities for students, and both Shelby County Schools and the state-run Achievement School District are better engaging families around school closures and restarts. However, the lack of a unified enrollment system or an up-to-date school information guide remain barriers to the choice process in a city where 47 schools have opened in the last four years. Attracting and preparing school talent also requires continued focus.


Is the education strategy rooted in the community?


Is the whole community engaged? Education is a citywide endeavor. When families, community organizations, and city leaders have the opportunity to provide feedback and share in the vision, the strategy is more likely to be sustainable and meet the needs of all students. In this goal, we look at how well the city is doing with engaging key stakeholders.


► Are a variety of groups engaged in education?

Multiple community groups in Memphis are working to provide better information to families about school performance and boost community engagement. Over the past year, some groups in the city were tapped to be part of ESSA planning. A new group, Whole Child Strategies, has formed to align neighborhood and community resources to combat the effects of poverty and support achievement. Though Memphis lacks an organization that works specifically with parents of students with disabilities, the local nonprofit Memphis Lift has a staff person dedicated to supporting these families. The NAACP, the faith community, and the teachers union are also engaged in education in the city. However, local businesses have not been encouraged to be involved.


► Does the city engage families in educational decisions that impact them?

Feedback from the community has spurred Shelby County Schools (SCS) to give some schools more time to improve before closing them, and family input helps shape the SCS school improvement plans. SCS has a new school performance framework which includes alerts to the school community when the school could be headed for closure. When the Achievement School District (ASD) takes over a school, one of six Neighborhood Advisory Committees works with school communities to determine the best match for a future school operator. Over the past year, the ASD and a local school community worked closely together to make sure a charter restart worked for the community that was being impacted. New ESSA regulations have clarified what triggers an ASD restart and how SCS schools can receive an iZone distinction, but there is still an additional step to make sure the process is understandable to families.


► Is there a strong and deep coalition of support for the education strategy?

The local funding community supports education in the city, and the public is generally positive about the direction of SCS. But the mayor and county commissioners are not involved in education in the city, and the school board is not always united in its decisions. Though improving, relations between SCS and charter schools still tend to be competitive rather than collaborative. The newly appointed superintendent of the ASD was the leader of SCS’s iZone and could help to bridge the two sectors.


► Does the education system respond to community feedback?

SCS is just beginning to develop systems to collect and respond to community feedback on an ongoing basis, while the ASD has slightly more in place. Memphis Lift has been supporting families in the choice process and helping to elevate parent concerns. But family engagement led by SCS or the ASD is happening only at the school level or when an initiative is being rolled out.

Is the education system continuously improving?


Do schools have the resources they need? School improvement happens at the school level, but making sure resources are available requires sound, citywide policy. Having the right talent in a city is critical for schools to be able to provide students with a quality education. Schools should also have control over their budgets so they have the resources to address the needs of their student population.


► Does funding equitably follow students?

During the 2016-17 school year, SCS allocated less than 5% of its budget through a student-based allocation formula. The SCS school board voted to implement student-based allocation budgeting in a pilot of eight schools starting in July 2017 and then expanding to all SCS schools within three years. The ASD allocates funding equitably across all school types, and has a special education tiered funding model to support schools with high concentrations of high-needs students (based on an analysis of fiscal year 2017-18).


► Do schools have the kinds of leaders they need?

Some schools still face problems with vacancies, quality, and fit. Quality school leaders are especially needed at the secondary level. Memphis has external and internal pipelines, but existing efforts do not yet fully address school needs or low retention rates across both SCS and ASD schools.


► Do schools have the kinds of teachers they need?

Both SCS and the ASD face teacher shortages and have started recent school years with vacant positions. The ASD does not have talent data, in part because charters implement their own teacher observation models which prevents aggregating data about teacher quality. Anecdotally, observers note that ASD schools seem to have a shortage of teachers of sufficient quality, particularly for the work of improving priority schools. The city has pipelines to prepare teachers, a local, citywide recruitment group (Teach901), and a teacher development initiative with Relay. These efforts will need to be reevaluated to meet current and future talent needs in the city’s lowest-performing schools. SCS is now hiring earlier, and year-round, to better address teacher shortages.

Do students have access to a high-quality education?


Do school choice and supply meet family needs? This goal addresses how well the city is doing with providing families access to quality schools. We look at what the city is doing to ensure quality schools are in every neighborhood, and how well the choice process is working for families who want to use it.


►Is the city strategically managing its school portfolio?

Both SCS and ASD use a data-informed process to improve, restart, and close schools, but interviewees expressed some concern that low-quality charter schools are not closing at an acceptable rate. In addition, troubles with the online version of the state tests prompted the Tennessee Department of Education to postpone evaluations, which paused ASD conversions. As a result, no schools have converted to the ASD in over two years. In most cases, SCS and the ASD have also worked strategically to identify schools for intervention and have a new school performance framework that helps drive intervention and closure decisions. More could be done with restarts and new schools, however: there are no data about where quality seats are needed across the city, and SCS does not publish the criteria it uses to restart iZone schools. Between a new ESSA accountability plan that pushes intervention out to five years and the pause on ASD takeovers, some community leaders expressed concern that the sense of urgency to improve school options has dwindled in a city with too few high-performing schools. In a 2017 parent survey, fewer than half (45%) of the 400 families surveyed said that they had confidence that the city would make sure all neighborhoods have a good school. Only a fifth believe that schools in the city are getting better.


► Is transportation working for families?

Memphis students are not guaranteed transportation to a school of their choice, and community members continue to cite this as a major barrier to families who want to use the choice process. Without yellow buses, families have to drive their children or send them on a public transportation system that does not have routes to every school. Despite these issues, families surveyed in 2017 said that finding transportation was no more challenging than the enrollment process—23% reported it as being a difficulty during the application process.


► Do families have the information they need and know how to use it?

The parent-created Memphis School Guide used to provide families with a consolidated resource for comparing school options, but it is no longer being updated. SCS launched a school scorecard for all SCS schools, including its charters with accompanying school profile pages. However, it doesn’t include ASD charter schools or those chartered by the state. Memphis Lift has a full-time choice counselor and parent liaison to help families, but community members said that families need much more support to make sense of the options available to them and identify the best school for their child. Based on a 2017 survey, 34% of families said that finding enough information was a difficulty during the application process. This was reported as much more of a challenge among charter families than district families (40% of charter families versus 27% of district families).


► Does the school supply represent an array of models?

Over half of families surveyed in 2017 said there was variety between school programs. Nonetheless, finding a school that is a good fit was also cited as a bigger challenge during the application process than finding enough information, navigating the enrollment process, or finding transportation (37% reported it as being a difficulty). Since 2014-15, 47 schools have opened, expanded, or restarted as SCS charters, ASD charters, or iZone schools. Of those, the majority teach students using traditional instructional methods. However, the city as a whole represents more curricular diversity than schools that have opened in recent years, and in the past year, new models featuring dual enrollment/CTE and an arts focus have opened.

Little in Place

► Is the enrollment process working for families?

Enrollment processes for school types are not aligned, and community members say that families do not have a good understanding of the options available to them. SCS now has an online enrollment system which puts an end to the annual “campout” by a number of families to try to enroll in magnet and other sought-after optional schools. Among families surveyed in 2017, 23% either had trouble understanding school eligibility or reported difficulty navigating the number of applications they have to complete. About a fifth also said they struggled with filling out paperwork.

Data & Scoring

Where did we get this information?

► Interviews with district, charter, and community leaders

► Policy documents from district, charter, and state websites

► School data from each city

► A 400-parent survey administered in March, 2017 in Cleveland, Denver, Indianapolis, Memphis, New Orleans, Oakland, and Washington, D.C.

How did we score the
system reforms and goals?

Each indicator is scored with a rubric on a 4-point scale. We added the scores for the indicators to get an overall goal score. See the Methodology & Resources page for details.

Score Levels


About Memphis

The education landscape in Memphis radically changed in 2010. The state’s Race To The Top award created the Achievement School District (ASD), a new state-run takeover district that chartered the lowest 5% of schools in the state, many of which were in Memphis. The next year, the urban Memphis City Schools merged with the suburban Shelby County Schools (SCS) for financial reasons. Several regions de-merged from SCS in 2014. What exists now are two competing and at times cooperating systems—Shelby County Schools and the Achievement School District.

School Choice in the City

Shelby County Schools has three types of schools students can opt into regardless of where they live: iZone schools, which are open enrollment,  Optional schools, which have specialized admission criteria, and charter schools. Other SCS and all ASD schools are zoned as neighborhood schools, but open to families on a space-available basis.

Governance Model

The Shelby County School District School Board and the Achievement School District superintendent oversee their respective district schools. SCS is the main authorizer of non-ASD charter schools.

2015 District and Charter Student Body

Enrollment: 105,254 students
Race and ethnicity: 81% black, 11% Hispanic, 5% white, 3% other
Low-income: 85% free and reduced-price lunch

2017 School Composition 

Source: Enrollment data from Education Equality Index, 2014-15.
School data from researcher analysis of public records, 2016-17.

The Center on Reinventing Public Education is a research and policy analysis center at the University of Washington Bothell developing systemwide solutions for K–12 public education. Questions? Email