Management of Change in Public Schools and the Success of Memphis

In 1992 the Memphis School District hired a new superintendent. Dr. Gerry House had achieved highly publicized success in nearby Chapel Hill, North Carolina and was invited to transform her success in Chapel Hill to Memphis, Tennessee. The report on Memphis’s restructuring is a prime example of comprehensive school reform, site-based management, and systemic change. Additionally, it provides a framework for the impact the aforementioned have on the successful management of change.

When Gerry House assumed the role of superintendent of the Memphis School District, the first thing she did was to establish a site-based management at each school. Memphis is the largest school system in Tennessee serving over 115,00 students in 161 different schools. The concept of site-based management is essentially giving more power, authority, and accountability to the teachers, parents, and individual schools. Site-based management is considered a “high-involvement” approach because it requires that employees become deeply involved in the ongoing improvement of the organization. For the teachers, parents, and students to experience success they need to be committed to success. Corporations outside of education have utilized similar site-based management techniques and have seen dramatic positive results. House was hoping to experience the same success by installing a site-based management focus as her first decision for the Memphis school’s future.
Gerry House decided that both individual schools and leadership teams would succeed in identifying and developing effective whole-school comprehensive school reform programs for improving instruction and learning. However, the Memphis school district did not embrace this school reform model and found the experience to be very challenging. Most school staffs stated that they did not have the time or expertise to conduct the research and development work required to make substantial changes. Thus, Superintendent House’s first initiative of site-based management was later replaced with a full systemic reform.
In March of 1995, New American Schools (NAS) selected Memphis City schools as a community committed to adopting a new school reform. This new design would incorporate the use of eight reform models. All eight models included the including of high level performance standards for students, increased teacher involvement, site-based professional development and planning time, and increased use of performance assessments requiring students to demonstrate their learning instead of answering objective questions. It is an example of systemic change because it was system-wide and affected all schools, faculty, and students. In fact, within two years of the being selected by the NAS, all schools were required to use their existing site-based management funds on their chosen reform model.

In the first three years of the new school reforms most schools chose models they truly believed could improve teaching and learning in their schools. The teachers and community were “buying-in” to the notion of comprehensive school reform. In the restructuring schools teaching and learning were becoming more active. Based on systematic observations and teacher interviews, cooperative learning, project-based learning, and technological applications were increasing. Instruction was becoming centered on the student and the students were more engaged in their lessons. The superintendent felt that this success could be seen in all of the remaining schools and declared that by 1997, that all schools adopt reform models.

Complete systemic reform was realized in 1998 when all 161 schools were involved in one model of school reform. However, due to the expansion of restructuring, the Memphis School District found the systemic approach difficult to sustain. The large number of reform schools and the eight different models being used system-wide decreased the support level being given to each individual school. Additionally, it created a distinction between successful schools and schools that were below performance level. The schools that experienced high student achievement were not easily willing to adopt the school reform. The schools that needed the reform the most had to account for different faculty each September due to teacher turnover and this made it harder for substantial change.

The Memphis School District had a hard time sustaining the commitment of its faculties. The commitment to reform efforts lessened each year as some teachers felt that certain reform models were being favored due to pressure from central administration. The author of the reform initiative, Gerry House, and her Deputy Superintendent, Kalkofen had announced their intentions of leaving. Within five years of the school reforms, the district had seen substantial success in restructuring schools but had already seen a diminish in support and intensity in it’s delivery year to year. The three biggest factors associated with the lack of continued success was teacher turnover, lack of professional development, and teachers believing in the model reform product.

Teachers felt that their schools were already performing well prior to House’s hiring and when given the directive to pick one of eight school reforms to implement, the teachers picked the least expensive and the school reform that exhibited the least change. The experiences outlined in Memphis show that a systemic approach does not always work. The Memphis City School District should not have required that all schools adopt a school reform. Change is not always the same as reform. Reform is a more drastic measure and requires a lot of input and intensity. Change is different because it is a plan for improvement. This plan could include researched strategies, external assistance, based on systematic needs assessment using data collection, school environment sensitive, student achievement, and community satisfaction.
The bottom line in any school reform is that teachers have to make the change happen and they have to make the reform work. The use of different models extends the capacity for training and support and makes it hard for students that transfer within the school district. Also, there will always be those skeptics within the organization, and not limited to just teachers (principals), who feel that their efforts are not serving the student or the schools, but in fact, serving to further advance a political or district leader’s career. Some would point out that the new superintendent House was hired after showing successful school reform in neighboring Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

Some teachers felt that not all Memphis schools were ready to undertake school reform due to weak leadership, low teacher support, and insufficient resources. All of the 161 schools should have learned more about the school design, performed a needs assessment to determine if the school is ready for reform, and to target certain areas of need based on achievement scores.

The team of education is made up of many players. All players must work together for school reform to work. The needs of the teachers, curriculum, and school environment need to be addressed first in order to create a climate for change. All of the players need to be committed to the reform. Comprehensive school reform is an outline and process for change enhanced by focusing on improving teaching and learning, increasing parental involvement, providing professional development, and having the necessary resources.

The Memphis City School District is an example of comprehensive school reform using site-based management style to achieve systemic change. The new superintendent attempted to deliver a school reform that used site-based management initiatives deemed at placing more authority in each individual school. Once success was seen in the first five years, the school district attempted a systemic change. This reform was not as successful as support for the school reforms decreased and support became lax. The strongest impact it has on successful management of change is that each school is different and based on its location; it services different climates of students. Reform in Memphis was showing promise early when only 34 of the existing 161 schools were using a site-based management approach to comprehensive school reform. However, the district attempted a systemic change and found that they could not sustain the initial success and support of the first five years. The Memphis experience has manifest comprehensive school reform models and initiatives using a site-based management style to achieve systemic change. Many superintendents will learn from House’s gain and loss and will implement similar management of change in education.


Dee, J.R., Henkin, A.B., Pell, S. W. (2002). Support for innovation in site-based- managed schools: Developing a climate for change. Educational Research Quarterly, 25, (4), 36-50.
North Carolina Network for School-Based Management. (n.d.). NC Network information [Online].
Ross, Steven M. (2001). Creating Critical Mass for Restructuring: What we can learn from Memphis. AEL Policy Briefs. (December) pp1-10.
Trubowitz, S. (2000). Predictable problems in achieving large-scale change. Phi Delta Kappan, 82(2), 166-170.

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