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Memphis-Shelby County Merger After One Year: A Report Card

One year after the long-struggling Memphis, Tenn., school system officially joined the district in neighboring Shelby County, education leaders there are still finding their footing as they oversee the largest, and perhaps the most complex, merger of public school systems in the nation's history, a new report commissioned by the district finds.

Effective communication and engagement with parents and families, autonomy for principals to make budgeting and curriculum decisions, and a strong, performance-based accountability system for schools are all weak areas for the newly merged district of 150,000 students known now as the Shelby County Schools, conclude researchers from the Seattle-based Center for Reinventing Public Education.

Across seven critical areas of the district's "portfolio" management strategy, only one is an area in which the district is demonstrating real progress: talent development.

Specifically, ┬áthe district gets strong reviews from CRPE for its use of alternative sources for finding teacher and principal talent and its use of performance-based evaluations to reward or get rid of teachers and school leaders.┬áBut in most every other area—robust options for families, school autonomy, pupil-based funding, to name a few—the district either has "no plans in place" or has "much work to be done," according to the CRPE's analysis.

A quick primer on how Memphis got to this point. (For the detailed version, read Education Week's coverage of Memphis in this year's Quality Counts report.)

In an effort to shore up its finances and historically lagging academic performance among a largely poor, African-American student body, Memphis' school board in 2011 voted to give up its charter to neighboring Shelby County, where the public schools have traditionally had more resources and a stronger record of student achievement.

After legal challenges and lots of tumult in the community over the merger, the districts joined last year, creating a complex school district management challenge. The merged district is now a mixture of traditional public schools, low-performing schools overseen by a special state entity, and charter schools. The consolidation has also prompted six Shelby County communities to seek to form their own school districts, which could result in the loss of several thousand students.

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