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Professional Development: The Cornerstone of Mathematics Reform in Memphis

by Marieta W. Harris
May / June 2001

Memphis City Schools, with 175 schools and an enrollment of more than 115 000 students, is one of the largest school systems in the United States. Approximately 86 percent of the student population is minority, primarily African American, and more than 64 percent of all students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. In 1995, Memphis City Schools became an Urban Systemic Initiative of the National Science Foundation. The five-year award with $15 million funding supported mathematics, science, and technology reform and was supplemented in August 2000 with an additional $8.7 million for five years as an urban systemic program. As an Urban Systemic Initiative, Memphis City Schools has worked to galvanize the community and establish strategies to accelerate achievement in mathematics by involving every administrator, school principal, teacher, and counselor, as well as parents, the community at large, the business community, and local colleges and universities to accelerate mathematics reform. The infrastructure so developed is committed to implementing a standards-based curriculum, integrating technology in the mathematics instruction, using coherent assessment practices, and providing ongoing professional development.

Like other large urban districts, Memphis City Schools has faced increasing demands for student performance on state assessments, including norm-referenced end-of-course and exit examinations, writing examinations, and the ACT and SAT examinations. As a result of the demands for student performance, Memphis City Schools has developed local standards for mathematics that describe what students in grades K–12 should know and be able to do and has recognized that for students to achieve academic standards, teachers of mathematics must be masters of the content and must understand how to convert that knowledge of content into standards-based instruction. Teachers therefore must acquire the skills needed to assist students in producing quality work, and they require sustained and intensive staff development.

Professional development has become the cornerstone of mathematics education reform in Memphis. Fostering collegiality and collaboration, promoting experimentation and risk taking, expanding content knowledge, involving participants in making decisions about their experiences, allowing teachers time to reflect on and practice what they have learned, providing for leadership development and sustained support, and giving appropriate rewards and incentives have become the norms for professional development that is consistent with the district's reform efforts for mathematics teachers.

The federal funding allows all elementary and middle school teachers to participate in 182 hours of professional development each year and allows all secondary-level teachers to participate in 36 hours per year. This professional development includes a variety of approaches to learning through institutes, seminars, study groups, networks, technology training sessions, action labs, and Web-based tutorial programs. The district's goal is to provide mathematics teachers with ongoing staff-development opportunities that result in improved teaching practices.

Because the role of the mathematics teachers in a Standards-based classroom differs from that in a traditional classroom, staff-development content must also differ. Teachers are recognized as an important source of knowledge; they learn through continuous inquiry into practice, interaction with colleagues, and exposure to research on best practices. Staff developers of Memphis City Schools have recognized these characteristics of mathematics teachers and are committed to providing high-quality professional development experiences for them. Only through this professional development can Memphis ensure that its schools continue to move toward overall high mathematics performance, and federal money has provided the ability to do so.


Marieta W. Harris, a career mathematics educator, is currently the associate superintendent for curriculum and school reform for Memphis City Schools. Before this appointment, she was project director for the Memphis Urban Systemic Initiative.



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