Shelby County Schools Teacher Effectiveness Initiative
In 2009, Shelby County Schools (formerly Memphis City Schools) received a $90 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. This gift, the largest of its kind for public education in Memphis, TN, funded the Teacher Effectiveness Initiative, a focused plan intended to help improve teacher effectiveness and empower teachers for student success by 2025.
This bold initiative aimed to address eight major problems within the district that internal research has shown to be detrimental to student success. By 2017, many of the changes implemented by the district were beginning to show improvement. However, one area of deep concern was lagging behind and creating problems for other areas. The school district was struggling to create the financial and cultural conditions necessary for success.
The school district brought in Group Dynamics & Strategy Training Associates, Inc., to help identify why this area was not in line with the intended trajectory for improvement. Once identified, GST Inc. would then work with the district on developing more effective strategies to address financial and cultural concerns within the school district.
GST's initial assessment revealed that the district's cabinet had been functioning with low trust, resulting in low collaboration and isolated decision making. The lack of interdepartmental cohesion caused the integral operating systems used by each department to become extremely misaligned.
Additionally, GST evaluated the district's cabinet building efforts to identify ways district leadership could shift from reactive to proactive, preventing 'fires' before they happen rather than reacting to them after the fact.
Solution - Make Collaboration a Benchmark for Success
It is important to remember that there are no immediate fixes to the problems found during the assessment. There are, however, steps that can be taken to overcome the obstacles discovered during the initial assessment. One of the biggest obstacles in establishing the right financial and cultural conditions for success was their lack of cohesion between departments. Each department acted autonomously, separate from the other departments, which derailed previous attempts to achieve the goals set for this focus area.
GST Inc. helped implement measures to encourage cohesion among the various departments by making collaboration one of the key performance indicators. For example, the Finance and IT teams collaborated to develop a budgeting platform that allowed Finance to align budgetary resources more strategically. When the two teams worked together to create what was needed rather than one team acting alone to purchase software that was not effective for the purposes, a viable solution for allocating budgetary resources was created.
Building Better Teams & Leaders
GST also helped Shelby County Schools identify ways to create a more inclusive culture that respects and empowers all stakeholders including employees, families, and members of the community. This includes ongoing work with instructional leadership teams to develop and nurture the skills needed to sustain a culture of accountability and collaboration and to provide leaders with the skills needed to address difficult conversations regarding race and equity, how to change classrooms, and how to give necessary, actionable feedback for instructors.
First, understand that building a successful partnership takes time and cannot be accomplished without the right framework from the start. Communication and trust are major factors to consider as the partnership moves forward. Ensuring the partner shares your vision will help ensure that the partner's vision does not eclipse the organization's vision.
Additionally, it is important to engage the right partner at the right time. Bringing in partners before they are actually needed can be just as costly as establishing a partnership only after existing goals have derailed. Instead, identify which areas you know can be done internally and which areas require the services of a partner to complete, as well as a timeline for when you will need to bring in a partner.
Finally, when engaging any partner, it is vital to establish a concrete plan for deliverables and to actively manage the partnership to avoid scope-creep. This management should include the change the partner is helping create, how you will get there, how to measure the results, how it will be built, and how success will be defined, as well as considering provisional contracts that tie pay to results for certain partners.
Although the district is several years away from reaching their Destination 2025 goals, the progress made so far is promising. With GST Inc. as a partner, the school district has made tremendous strides toward improving collaboration between departments while also addressing the issues surrounding race and equity within the district. The work so far has helped leadership transform the reactionary environment where staff members focused on reacting to issues to one where the staff is more organized, focused and proactive with planning and implementation.