Citywide Education Progress Report


Key Takeaways: June 2018

Memphis is a city with two education systems: Shelby County Schools (SCS) and the charters it authorizes, and the mostly charter Achievement School District (ASD). Both systems are turning around low-performing schools, but over the past year community members report that these efforts may be slowing, and they worry that new ESSA plans will reduce urgency by pushing out intervention timelines. Improving education will be a slow climb given where Memphis started, and must include a citywide vision and commitment to addressing the challenges that students in poverty bring with them to school. Other critical next steps for education leaders are making the choice process easier to navigate and developing skilled teachers and leaders in high-poverty schools.


System Reforms

Is the education strategy
rooted in the community?

Variety of groups Good
City engages families Good
Broad support Developing
System is responsive Developing

Is the education system
continuously improving?

Equitable funding Developing  
Right leaders Developing  
Right teachers Developing

Do students have access
a high-quality education?

Strategic school supply Good
Transportation is working Developing
Array of school models Developing
Families have information Developing
Enrollment is working Little in Place

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. An arrow shows increase or decrease from the 2017 score.

Looking Deeper

Challenges Ahead

► Addressing school quality and coherence to improve long-term outcomes for students

Nearly a fifth of all schools in Memphis have expanded, opened, restarted, or closed in the past four years. District schools have been continually closing or consolidating in response to enrollment declines, but excess seats still remain. Performance across both district and charter schools is still generally low. City education leaders have developed a new school performance framework that will give district and charter leaders a more strategic, data-driven, and public process to address school quality. The state, through its new ESSA plan, has outlined what performance interventions will look like but not yet how ASD schools will return to SCS. ASD’s interim leadership provided an opportunity for it to work with communities to determine the best management of schools—whether through ASD or not—helping to reset ASD’s relationship with those communities. The ASD has recently hired a highly skilled turnaround leader out of SCS as the next ASD superintendent, providing a fresh opportunity to work collaboratively on a more robust and coherent vision for the portfolio of schools in Memphis.

Improving information and enrollment to make choice easier for families

Memphis families need more support to understand their school options. The parent-created Memphis School Guide will not be updated, so education leaders must explore new options to inform families about their school choices. SCS’s new school scorecard provides information on SCS schools, but not ASD schools. The city’s district-charter collaboration compact can direct a nonprofit to facilitate development of a unified school guide for SCS, charter, and ASD schools. SCS’s new school performance framework can be the basis for providing common school accountability ratings. Other improvements should include more consistent curricular, programmatic, and student service information. Printing copies of the guide and having it on SCS and ASD websites will also improve accessibility. Families will still need more in-person support to understand how to use the information once it is more widely available.

SCS and ASD together have several  different enrollment processes, and independent charter schools each have their own applications. While a single, unified enrollment system would be easiest for families, simply streamlining processes within SCS and coordinating timelines with ASD would go a long way toward improving families’ experience. Moving toward coordinated choice fairs will also help families better understand the options available to them.

Reassessing talent pipelines

Memphis has multiple pipelines for teachers and principals, but education leaders still perceive that these are not meeting the city’s needs in terms of quantity or quality, especially when it comes to the hard work of turning around the lowest-performing schools. In order to improve recruitment and development efforts, education leaders must first collect better data across SCS and ASD charter schools, conduct focus groups and exit surveys with teachers, and collect principal feedback to drive improvements on recruitment and development strategies.


Elevating High School Graduation Rates in Impoverished Communities

Because so many Memphis students live in poverty—over 40,000 students have an annual family income of $10,000—the vision for school improvement must also include addressing student needs. The city must come together with a vision and creative strategies to respond to the student achievement deficits, trauma, and struggles of families.

One new nonprofit is taking on this challenge. In late 2017, Whole Child Strategies (WCS), a new community-based nonprofit in Memphis, opened its doors to pilot a new model for improving students’ chances at graduating from high school.

The group is using a community model to improve student attendance and behavior, while decreasing the number of suspensions and expulsions. WCS created a Neighborhood Council made up of key local stakeholders, including small businesses, support organizations, school staff, parents, and the faith community. The model brings all of a community’s assets to bear while addressing the array of challenges students face outside of school. WCS provides supports and training for the council. In turn, the council is tasked with creating a long-term community engagement plan that coordinates resources and small grants in support of local students and their families.

Training Families to Hold Charter Schools Accountable

A California-based charter school operator wanted to open a new school in Memphis. Newly trained community members reviewed the application and gave critical feedback, which made the operator realize it should take more time to improve the application before submitting it to Shelby County Schools.

These community members participate in a Community Launch initiative developed by the Tennessee Charter School Center. Each cohort includes students, parents, and community members. The initiative helps to make sure families have more say in how reforms are implemented, especially those that most impact them—new schools opening in their neighborhoods.

The Community Launch six-month training program prepares its participants to provide feedback on prospective charter operators before approval and trains them to hold the approved charter schools accountable for quality results. Participants also visit Boston, Chicago, and Los Angeles to see what quality schools look like.

Through this effort, families are trained and empowered to give input on school models and school quality, making them part of the effort to improve school fit and quality citywide.

Student and School Outcomes

The performance of low-income students in Memphis has been improving at a rapid rate, and student sub-groups are also proportionately enrolled in high school advanced coursework. However, graduation rates have not been improving relative to the state.

► Performance among the city’s low-income students has improved 14% over time. Despite these gains, students from low-income families are still performing somewhat worse in math and reading than low-income students nationally.

► In 2014-15, the city’s graduation rate was behind the state’s.

Data are for all charter and district schools within the municipal boundary. Performance data from the Tennessee State Board of Education, graduation data from EDFacts. See Methodology & Resources for more detail.


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