In Tennessee, about 81,000 high school freshmen start school every fall. Four years later, 62,000 graduate, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan told the community Monday.
"You're losing about 19,000 every year. It's not good for the state, and it's not good for the students.
"We have got to get that to zero as fast as we can," he said, settling back in his seat in a roundtable discussion at Soulsville Charter School to hear what Memphians think Washington can do to help.
The responses were rapid and far-ranging, from people as diverse as businessman and philanthropist Pitt Hyde; Memphis City Schools Supt. Kriner Cash; state Rep. G.A. Hardaway, D-Memphis; and Steve Bares, executive director of Memphis Academy of Science and Engineering (MASE) and head of the Bioworks Foundation.
"We have some of the best teacher-tracking data in the country, but it's not really used to evaluate teacher performance," said Hyde, suggesting a thorough review process "by really seasoned, qualified leaders" would raise the bar.
"We have to have a way to get the right people in the classroom," Hyde said, adding that it is equally important to get poor teachers out.
Memphis City Schools recently was named one of five finalists in the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation's $500 million grant program to improve teacher effectiveness.
"Teachers have the greatest single impact (on student performance) other than an effective parent," Cash said.
He reduced the relationship between school performance and the city's goals to a ratio: "If the poverty level goes down 1 percent, $1 million comes back into the city.
"You don't have to squabble over fewer dollars and can start to invest in the children."
Duncan is on a listening tour, visiting U.S. schools to gather opinions as President Barack Obama's administration presses forward on record investments in education. Those include $3.5 billion Duncan announced last week to improve poor schools, a fivefold increase in pay-for-performance funds for teachers and principals, and hundreds of millions more in stimulus funds to shore up school infrastructure and reward innovation.
Duncan, the former chief executive officer of the Chicago Public Schools, started the day with U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., at MASE, the first charter school in Memphis. The next stop was Soulsville, where the group was serenaded at lunch by the school's string musicians, followed by a visit to Whitehaven High to meet students in a new Arabic language class.
Duncan has maintained that more school choices will improve the U.S. education system's lagging competitiveness.
"I'm not a fan of charters, I'm a fan of good charters," Duncan said. "We need more great schools to see a drop-off in these dropout numbers."
Last spring, he spurred a legislative about-face in Nashville when he said that states that failed to lift restrictions on who may attend charters and caps on the numbers of such schools risked losing tens of millions in stimulus money.
A bill left for dead was quickly revitalized; the state cap on charters went from 50 to 90 and restrictions on who may attend were loosened.
"It allowed students access to charters who wanted it," Bares told Duncan. "It was a step forward, due to your leadership."
Memphis, which already has more charter schools and optional schools than any other city in the state, "is poised to go to the next level," Duncan said.
"I'm just so hopeful that change can happen here," he said, praising the city for its "leadership and courage."