“5 Things That Should Be Done To Improve The US Educational System” with Terence Patterson, CEO of the Memphis Education Fund

Penny Bauder
Jan 24 · 12 min read

…Boosting parent engagement. Parents are our children’s first advocate, and we desperately need them to be involved in our local school systems and in their child’s education. We have lots of organizations here in Memphis that are making that happen, but the reality is, some schools benefit from stronger parental engagement than others. Recently, I read an article about schools in Nashville where one public school’s PTO raised $218,000 for its kids, compared to another that raised only $150. Deep equity divides exist across our state and across our district, and we know money won’t fix everything. But having more, stronger parental engagement can help kids, teachers, and schools address tough challenges and do better for students during their time in the classroom.


a part of my interview series about the things that should be done to improve the US educational system I had the pleasure to interview with Terence Patterson.

Terence Patterson is a native Memphian who currently serves as Chief Executive Officer of the Memphis Education Fund, the city’s most prominent education philanthropic fund, which aims to strengthen the local education community by fueling teachers, schools, and communities. Patterson formerly served as President and CEO of the Downtown Memphis Commission, the organization charged with advancing Memphis and Shelby County by making Downtown Memphis a better place to work, live, play and invest. Patterson holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in Government from Harvard University, where he was a two-time All-Ivy League football player and graduated as the school’s All-Time Reception Leader. He also holds an MBA and law degree from Northwestern University in Chicago. He served as Senior Financial Analyst for The Walt Disney Company, as an Attorney for the prestigious firm Kirkland & Ellis in Chicago, and as Deputy Chief of Staff & Interim Executive Officer of New Schools for the Chicago Public School system. In 2011, the Hyde Family Foundation recruited Patterson back to Memphis to serve as Education Program Director. Through this position, he co-created and managed startup of multi-million dollar initiatives and investment for local education transformation. Patterson serves on the Northwestern University Pritzker School of Law Board and was recently appointed by Tennessee Governor Bill Lee to the State Public Charter School Commission. He is a Life Member of Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity, Incorporated.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share the “backstory”behind what brought you to this particular career path?

tend to think about my life in steps. I am a native Memphian, and I have been blessed that my educational journey and career have taken me all across the country. In 2011, I chose to come home. When I did, I learned something startling about my hometown: in the age when global populations are flocking towards cities and the economic opportunities they present, Memphis’ population had been on the steady decline since 2000. One of the largest cities in our state — and my hometown — was on the wrong track, and I could do something to change it. I learned how to be an effective leader, how to bring people together for a common goal — and those were skills my city needed. I believe, if my story started in Memphis, my story should end with an impact on Memphis. And I believe we are shaping the future of Memphis now. Each day, I work to help make “now” better, so that the Memphis of tomorrow will be better.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

In college, I was a football player at Harvard University and, at the time, had a dream of one day becoming a player for the NFL. After Harvard, I went on to complete law school at Northwestern University in Chicago and when I graduated, I took a job as a sports agent for my mentor instead of taking a job at a prestigious law firm. I had a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to do the work I thought I was meant to do, but I realized — it just wasn’t for me. I had to be introspective about my life goals and how I could have the impact I wanted to have. Two years after folks from my law school class, I took a job at that same law firm alongside many of my peers, learning the ropes and playing catch up — all because I had initially chosen a different path. But that job at the law firm opened up other “dream job” career opportunities that led me to where I am now, where I can have huge, positive impacts on the hometown I love so much.

This experience taught me that intelligence, preparation, and passion all matter. It’s important to chase your passion and take well-thought risks. It’s just as important to learn from your experiences and adapt when necessary, to use your unique skills and abilities to make an impact.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

In my role at the Memphis Education Fund, I am really excited about the work we are funding to create more equity in educational opportunity for every student in our city. Memphis has some great schools, and we have some where students are falling through the cracks. Education is a foundation that people build their lives upon, and we must ensure that every student — no matter who they are, what part of town they live in, what background and life experiences they come from — have access to great schools that will provide them a great education. If we can get that right, it will have lifelong impacts on the citizens of Memphis and our city as a whole.

Can you briefly share with our readers why you are authority in the education field?

Memphis Education Fund is the city’s most prominent education philanthropic fund. Thanks to the support of generous national and local family foundations, we are able to invest in quality programs that are effectively moving the needle to improve outcomes for our students. Districts, schools, and community non-profits all seek funding from our organization to support their missions, so as a grant maker, we have a keen understanding of where the needs are, what common roadblocks are, and what types of solutions are likely to address tough challenges. One of our biggest goals is to finance more creative, grass-roots solutions to education problems facing the city.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the main focus of our interview. From your point of view, how would you rate the results of the US education system?

Good, but not great. We have a system that directs significant public investment into our schools for our children, but there are huge equity gaps that persist despite strong investments and innovative change and reforms. This country has no shortage of smart, capable people who can work together to make progress in narrowing those equity gaps, and I believe, if we can better harness that brainpower and passion, we can develop a better system that provides a great education for every single student.

Can you identify 5 areas of the US education system that are going really great?

There have been some national trends and innovations in education that Tennessee has embraced and led to some critical improvements in outcomes for our students. These include setting high-standards, developing highly-effective teachers, assessing student growth and achievement, regularly measuring progress, and following strong accountability models that can lift up what is working and intervene where things aren’t working.

Can you identify the 5 key areas of the US education system that should be prioritized for improvement? Can you explain why those are so critical?

Education funding is a complex issue but one we must begin to improve. Catch-all funding formulas often do not sufficiently account for funding needs that differ within a single district from school to school and student to student. Student-based budgeting offers an innovative way to allocate public tax dollars to schools and maximize the impact of taxpayer investment on a child’s learning.

School choice is a critical concept that often gets politicized, but can make-or-break a student’s educational experience. We know education is not one-size-fits-all. Memphis is home to two school districts and several school types and models that provide best-fit options for students and families, but we should expand access to these options so that every student can attend the school that best meets their individual needs.

Common enrollment is closely related. In a city with so many school choice options, we have to educate parents on ALL the schools available to their children, and we have to make access to these schools equitable. Enrolling students can be quite confusing when there are many different applications, deadlines, and entry requirements. Multiply that confusion for families with multiple children at different grade levels. We can do better by streamlining enrollment and educating our families about the schools available to their children.

Public charter schools offer great options for some students and families, but from a district perspective, are often managed differently from their traditional neighborhood schools. In some cases, these differences can benefit students, as is the case with the curriculum flexibility and autonomy many charter schools enjoy. However, discrepancies in how we fund traditional vs. charter schools can majorly impact the school’s ability to teach its students. Facilities funding for public charter schools is a major challenge we are facing in Memphis. It’s hard to imagine how any child could learn, or any teacher could effectively teach, in facilities that are not clean, safe, or suitable for a conducive learning environment.

Public engagement in education is a critical area where we can make big improvements. Parents are our children’s first and best advocates. We do not do enough to engage parents, families, and concerned community members in the public conversations that impact our schools and students. That’s why Memphis Education Fund has a goal of financing more creative, grassroots solutions to education problems facing our city.

How is the US doing with regard to engaging young people in STEM? Can you suggest three ways we can increase this engagement?

STEM is obviously a critical initiative in our schools because our economy is changing, and the jobs of today and tomorrow are requiring new skill sets that our students must be equipped with if they want to be successful in their professional lives. I think the more important theme here is that we must align our education systems with local economies and industries that will employ our students in the future, and we at the Memphis Education Fund want to support programs that help further educational alignment with the local economy and job opportunities our students will have access to.

Can you articulate to our readers why it’s so important to engage girls and women in STEM subjects?

As a society, we must engage all of our talented citizens in an evolving economy. For too long we have had certain classes and subgroups limited or shut out of certain opportunities. A diverse and dynamic workforce has the potential to provide amazing, unthinkable, unimaginable outcomes that could change the trajectory of the world — women have been and should be a significant part of this work!

How is the US doing with regard to engaging girls and women in STEM subjects? Can you suggest three ways we can increase this engagement?

Candidly, the US could be doing much better. (1) increase the targeted marketing efforts focused on encouraging girls and women to enter the space; (2) provide greater economic incentives for girls and women to study and train in STEM subjects; and (3) educate more parents and families in underserved, low income communities about the opportunities for their young people.

As an education professional, where do you stand in the debate whether there should be a focus on STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) or on STEAM (STEM plus the arts like humanities, language arts, dance, drama, music, visual arts, design and new media)? Can you explain why you feel the way you do?

STEAM. I strongly believe our children should have well-rounded, diverse experiences to enhance their complete development. The creativity and stimulus associated with the arts is equally important to providing an intellectual foundation for ALL citizens.

If you had the power to influence or change the entire US educational infrastructure what five things would you implement to improve and reform our education system? Can you please share a story or example for each?

- Establishing a Common Enrollment system by county/city school districts. Not all that long ago, in Memphis, we had “tent city” every year in January. Parents literally camped out in the cold for days at a time, waiting in line for a chance to enroll their students in one of the districts’ optional schools in hopes their children would get a better education than their zoned neighborhood school could provide. Not every parent had the time or resources to do that, and not every parent who did was able to get their children into those optional schools. Access to great schools should be universal. A district-wide common enrollment system puts all enrollment timelines and applications under one single system and one single process — showing parents ALL their public school options and breaking down barriers to enrollment.

- Providing universal pre-k for all children. We know early learning milestones — particularly 3rd grade literacy — are critical foundations that, when missed, can impact a child for the rest of their life. But creating strong foundations for learning starts much earlier. Universal pre-K provides every single child an opportunity to be ready, earlier, to learn at school. This really matters in cities like Memphis that are battling stark achievement gaps among student groups. Earlier this year, our city and county governments stepped up and allocated millions of dollars to protect pre-K seats that were in jeopardy after federal funding ended. We’re proud of our city’s leadership for investing in our children in this way, and we are excited about the opportunity this creates for so many children in Memphis.

- Establishing student-based budgeting for school funding. Tennessee is home to several large urban school districts, many small, rural districts, and lots in between — all serving diverse families with diverse student needs. In Chattanooga, Hamilton County students benefit from super-fast, gigabit-per second internet, but in many other rural parts of the state, students may not have access to internet at all. Providing funding that will enable all these districts to serve their students well is incredibly complex. We believe that a weighted, student-based approach for allocating state funding for public schools would better spread resources to the areas that need them most, and better enable schools and districts to address student need and enhance learning.

- Ensuring free facilities for high potential and proven, high performing public charter schools. Memphians know — education is not “one size fits all,” and students and families have benefitted from having many different school choice options from which they can choose, including traditional zoned neighborhood schools, magnet, optional, iZone (turnaround schools), and public charters. But there is not equitable facilities funding for these schools, and as a result, public charter schools often must dip into their operating budgets — monies meant to be spent on teachers, classroom supplies, and student learning experiences — to pay for things like renting a space in a strip mall to house their school, or repairing broken air conditioners or leaky roofs. Especially in areas like Memphis, where we have empty or underused buildings available that would be perfectly suitable for public charter schools, there is no good reason to have these schools drain precious resources out of the classroom. Ensuring free facilities for high potential and proven, high performing schools is in the best interest of children.

- Boosting parent engagement. Parents are our children’s first advocate, and we desperately need them to be involved in our local school systems and in their child’s education. We have lots of organizations here in Memphis that are making that happen, but the reality is, some schools benefit from stronger parental engagement than others. Recently, I read an article about schools in Nashville where one public school’s PTO raised $218,000 for its kids, compared to another that raised only $150. Deep equity divides exist across our state and across our district, and we know money won’t fix everything. But having more, stronger parental engagement can help kids, teachers, and schools address tough challenges and do better for students during their time in the classroom.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“To whom much is given, much will be required (Luke 12:48).” This resonates for me because I have been fortunate to have great opportunities in my life to grow, learn and impact my community. So, at each moment of success or acquisition of knowledge, I always prepare to make an even bigger impact — not resting on my laurels or getting comfortable with past successes.

We are blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them :-)

I would love to have breakfast with President Barack Obama to better understand his ability to persevere in challenging, stressful situations and to get a sense for how he approaches complex issues/problems to reach final decision.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

Follow the Memphis Education Fund on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn- @memphisedufund.

Thank you so much for these insights! This was so inspiring!

Authority Magazine

Leadership Lessons from Authorities in Business, Film, Sports and Tech. Authority Mag is devoted primarily to sharing interesting feature interviews of people who are authorities in their industry. We use interviews to draw out stories that are both empowering and actionable.

Penny Bauder

Written by

Environmental scientist-turned-entrepreneur, Founder of Green Kid Crafts

Authority Magazine

Leadership Lessons from Authorities in Business, Film, Sports and Tech. Authority Mag is devoted primarily to sharing interesting feature interviews of people who are authorities in their industry. We use interviews to draw out stories that are both empowering and actionable.

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