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My readers know that whenever I travel I make a point to learn about the local education system…whether I’m overseas or here in America. I usually visit with school officials, if the occasion presents itself, which it typically does.

I travel most weekends in the Fall to attend my son’s college football games. This week’s scheduler took me to downtown Memphis, Tennessee. Tennessee is an education state. The United States Secretary of Education, from 1991–1993, Lamar Alexander, was previously the Governor of Tennessee and is currently a U.S. Senator.

Senator Alexander was also the President of the University of Tennessee and continues to influence education today as the Chairperson of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee. The committee has broad jurisdiction over our country's health care, education, employment and retirement policies.

The Republican Senator was instrumental in rewriting NCLB. Regarding it successor, Every Student Succeeds Act, he applauded it as a path to better teaching, higher standards, and higher achievement through its emphasis on improved instruction and local control. As the son of a kindergarten teacher and elementary school principal, Alexander was among the first education leaders to promote standardized skills for students and merit pay for teachers, when he was Tennessee’s governor from 1979 to 1987. Tennessee is also among the states that championed Class Size Reduction (CSR). The Tennessee STAR (Student Teacher Achievement Ratio), considered among the most influential and credible studies of CSR, was conducted in Tennessee during the late 1980s. It was concluded that with an average of 15 students increased student achievement by an amount equivalent to about 3 additional months of schooling.

Fast forward to 2009, and Tennessee was back in the news. This time thanks to a group of philanthropists and local educators who set an ambitious goal of transforming Memphis City Schools (now Shelby County Schools, an urban district with over 100,000 students) into a national model of great teaching for all children. With support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (The world’s richest nonprofit with assets at $40 billion and annual giving of around $4 billion through advocacy philanthropy), and a federal grant the district poured $184 million into addressing the district’s chronic failure in recruiting, developing and retaining talent for its schools and classrooms. The unprecedented investment has become another national case study, like CSR. Over the course of the investment, the district has overhauled how it hires, places, evaluates and pays teachers. Though only modest successes have been found up to this point, there continues to be optimism surrounding the new structures that may eventually have a positive effect system-wide for many years to come.

On the heels of that conclusion from last year, Gates announced last month that his Foundation will no longer invest directly in new initiatives based on teacher evaluations and ratings. Bill Gates’ experiences have led him to the conclusion that schools need the flexibility and autonomy to propose the set of approaches they believe is in the best interests of their students. I concur…it alone has the potential to lead to impactful and durable systemic change that can be adopted by other school systems…education must be locally local. It's the teachers that make a difference. Support them. Train them. Pay them.

I have led in districts all over the SES map.  As the research suggests, socioeconomics is the greatest single factor impacting student achievement. The efforts to bridge the gap here in Memphis have been significant. 

As have the efforts of philanthropists committed to making a difference. Democracy depends on its people to help each other.  I’m afraid we have lost our way as our country searches for its identity.  Who are we?  No one really knows the answer to that question as we struggle to understand the complex world we have inherited. So many people have fled public schools and abandoned their fellow Americans who have identifiably been left behind.  While NCLB was widely criticized, and deservedly so, for its negative orientation (No Child Left Behind) versus the positive orientation of it successor (Every Child Succeeds), the truth is, semantics aside, it was right on...children have been left behind…and as education leaders we, and we alone, can do something about it. I'm doing my share..are you?

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