ASD copycats

More states look to Tennessee’s Achievement School District as a school turnaround model

PHOTO: Daarel Burnette
Achievement School District Superintendent Chris Barbic visits Georgian Hills Elementary, a Memphis school that the state-run district has operated since 2013.

When Chris Barbic took the helm of Tennessee’s new Achievement School District in 2011, there was little guidance for how a state-run turnaround school district might look.

“Nothing existed,” Barbic said recently during a Fordham Institute panel on turnaround districts. “I walked into an office with a sheet of paper with some legislation, and the charge was, go start a school district.”

That’s beginning to change as more lawmakers across the nation look to Barbic’s Achievement School District as a model to improve struggling schools on a larger scale — even as the impact of Tennessee’s pioneering district remains murky.

As the ASD completes its third year of operation, Nevada, Pennsylvania, Georgia and Arkansas all appear poised to launch state-run turnaround school districts, with Pennsylvania, Arkansas and Nevada even seeking to copy Tennessee’s “ASD” moniker.

Before Tennessee established the ASD in its omnibus 2010 First to the Top Act, only Louisiana had tried its hand at a turnaround school district, in which the state had authority to take control of low-performing public schools and convert them into charter schools.

But Louisiana’s situation was different than Tennessee’s. Its turnaround district, called the Recovery School District (RSD), was established in 2004, and quickly became the dominant school system in New Orleans after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, when most of New Orleans’ educational infrastructure was literally washed away. Today, it operates about 60 schools — all charters — while the Orleans Parish School District operates 20.

Tennessee’s ASD arose out of the federal Race to the Top grant competition, which incentivized states to come up with bold proposals to improve their worst schools. The ASD was the centerpiece of Tennessee’s resulting First to the Top Act, which also overhauled teacher evaluations and instituted Common Core. For its efforts, Tennessee joined Delaware as the nation’s first recipients of the Race to the Top grant, providing Tennessee an additional $500 million in education spending over four years.

As the ASD was being created, Michigan was laying the groundwork for its own state-run district, the Educational Achievement Authority. The ASD and Michigan’s district both began operation in 2012, but Tennessee’s district has twice as many schools — 29 in the 2015-16 school year, mostly in Memphis —and has had a smoother start than its Michigan counterpart.

The ASD also is the only district of its type with the concrete goal of lifting the state’s worst-performing 5 percent of schools to the top 25 percent in five years.

The buzz has attracted national attention and copycat initiatives from a growing list of states. Pennsylvania’s Senate passed a bill last week to approve an ASD there, and the measure now awaits a House vote. Nevada’s legislature approved an ASD in May. Georgia voters will decide next year on a constitutional amendment to create an “Opportunity School District.”

In at least five other states — Missouri, South Carolina, Texas, Utah and Wisconsin — lawmakers or activists have begun campaigns to launch similar programs.

Meanwhile, Virginia attempted to model its own turnaround district after the ASD, but a court struck down the law that would have permitted creation of the “Opportunity Education Institute.” The court ruled that the plan violated the state’s constitution because the district was created by the legislature, and not by the state board of education, and because it unseated local district control.

For his part, Barbic is unsure if there are enough high-quality charter operators to go around, should the ASD copycats get off the ground.

“The bottom line is that there are not a lot of great charter operators to begin with, and there are even fewer who understand how to do turnaround,” he said during Fordham’s panel, which also included leaders from Louisiana and Michigan.

“If we don’t solve the charter supply problem, we can have as many of these (turnaround districts) on the books as we want, but it’s going to be very difficult for them to actually be executed and done well,” said Barbic, who was recruited to Tennessee from Houston, where he helped found the Yes Prep charter network.

Barbic is no stranger to the challenges. Many of the ASD’s Memphis schools lag behind their counterparts in Shelby County Schools’ own school turnaround program known as the Innovation Zone. And last year, four charter networks — including Yes Prep — backed out of plans to expand with the ASD. In addition to often mediocre improvement on end-of-year tests, the ASD has frequently been accused of clumsy engagement with the communities in which it opens schools.

Barbic acknowledges that the ASD has made mistakes, but is quick to point out changing attitudes and priorities among local education leaders as a result of the looming threat of ASD intervention in lackluster districts. He thinks the ASD has helped propel district-led turnaround efforts such as Memphis’ I-Zone.

Community engagement has often fallen by the wayside, he said, because of the district’s speedy timeline.

“Some of that lays at our feet, and some of that is the speed in which we’ve had to move with this,” Barbic said before conceding that “there has to be more parent demand for what we’re trying to do” if the district is to be ultimately successful.

Education leaders in Tennessee have watched the ASD’s evolution with both fascination and fear.

Will Pinkston, a school board member for Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools, coined the term “Achievement School District” during the drafting of the First to the Top Act when he worked for then-Gov. Phil Bredesen. He has since become an ASD critic, saying the initiative was never intended to rely so heavily on charter operators, or grow so quickly.

“If other states want to commit to creating pro-public education turnaround agencies that are designed to help students and teachers in traditional schools, I think it’s great for them to co-opt the name,” Pinkston said. “If they’re instead looking to turn their backs on traditional public education, as the ASD is doing, then I would encourage them to look at different and more intellectually honest monikers.”

“Regardless,” he joked, “it’s abundantly clear that we should have trademarked the brand with the royalties going to support public schools.”

a 'meaningful' education?

How a Colorado court case could change how public schools everywhere serve students with special needs

Dougco headquarters in Castle Rock (John Leyba/The Denver Post).

The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday grappled with the question of what kind of education public schools must provide students with disabilities, hearing arguments in a case that originated with a complaint against a suburban Denver school district and that could have profound implications nationwide.

The case involves a student diagnosed with autism and attention deficit/hyperactive disorder. His parents pulled him out of his Douglas County elementary school, saying he wasn’t making enough progress and the district’s response was lacking.

They enrolled the boy in a private school for children with autism and asked the district to reimburse them for the tuition, arguing their son was due a “free appropriate public education” as required by the 1975 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

The law spells out the requirements states must meet to receive federal money to educate special-needs students. The district declined, saying it had met the standard of the law.

The family eventually filed a lawsuit against the district. Lower courts all sided with the district, reasoning that it had provided the child “some” educational benefit — the standard cited in the federal statute at issue.

Lower courts across the nation have varied in their definition of the proper standard. The high court arguments Wednesday centered on whether “some” benefit was good enough, or whether special-needs students deserve a more “meaningful” benefit.

Jeffrey Fisher, an attorney for the boy’s family, told the justices that as a general rule, individualized education plans for special education students should include “a level of educational services designed to allow the child to progress from grade to grade in the general curriculum.”

Throughout the arguments, the justices expressed frustration with what Justice Samuel Alito described as “a blizzard of words” that the law and courts have used to define what’s appropriate for special needs students.

Chief Justice John Roberts said regardless of the term used, “the whole package has got to be helpful enough to allow the student to keep up with his peers.”

Neal Katyal, an attorney for the school district, argued that providing children “some benefit” is a reasonable standard.

“That’s the way court after court has interpreted it,” he said. “It’s worked well. This court shouldn’t renege on that.”

Ron Hager, senior staff attorney for special education at the National Disability Rights Network, attended the oral arguments Wednesday and said he was optimistic the lower court’s ruling would be overturned.

He said if the Supreme Court does overturn the federal Tenth Circuit Court’s ruling and requires a higher standard, it won’t necessarily come with major financial costs for school districts. Instead, he said, it will nudge them to be proactive and provide teacher training and intervention services early on instead of waiting until problems — and the expenses associated with them — snowball later.

Marijo Rymer, executive director of the Arc of Colorado, which advocates on behalf of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, said she was heartened to see the case advance to the Supreme Court. Establishing a clearer standard on what constitutes a fair and appropriate education for students with disabilities is a civil rights issue, she said.

“It’s critical that federal law, which is what this is based on, be reinforced and supported, and the court is in the position to deliver that message to the nation’s schools and the taxpayers that fund them,” Rymer said.

Both Hager and Rymer acknowledged that even if the Supreme Court establishes a new, higher standard, it could be open to interpretation. Still, they said it would send a strong message to school districts about their responsibilities to students with disabilities.

Summer remix

Ten stories you may have missed this summer (and should read now as the new school year kicks in)

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Gabrielle Colburn, 7, adds her artistic flair to a mural in downtown Memphis in conjunction with the XQ Super Schools bus tour in June.

Labor Day used to signal the end of summer break and the return to school. That’s no longer the case in Tennessee, but the long holiday is a good time to catch up on all that happened over the summer. Here are 10 stories to get you up to speed on K-12 education in Tennessee and its largest school district.

TNReady is back — with a new test maker.

Last school year ended on a cliffhanger, with the State Department of Education canceling its end-of-year tests for grades 3-8 in the spring and firing testmaker Measurement Inc. after a series of missteps. In July, Commissioner Candice McQueen announced that Minnesota-based Questar will pick up where Measurement Inc. left off. She also outlined the state’s game plan for standardized tests in the coming year.

But fallout over the state’s failed TNReady test in 2015-16 will be felt for years.

The one-year void in standardized test scores has hit Tennessee at the heart of its accountability system, leaving the state digging for other ways to assess whether all of its students are improving.

Speaking of accountability, Tennessee also is updating that plan under a new federal education law.

The state Department of Education has been working with educators, policymakers and community members on new ways to evaluate schools in answer to the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, which requires states to judge schools by non-academic measures as well as test scores.

Meanwhile, issues of race and policing have educators talking about how to foster conversations about social justice in school.

In the wake of police-related killings that rocked the nation, five Memphis teachers talked about how they tackle difficult conversations about race all year long.

School closures made headlines again in Memphis — with more closings likely.

Closing schools has become an annual event as Tennessee’s largest district loses students and funding, and this year was no exception. The shuttering of Carver and Northside high schools brought the total number of district-run school closures to at least 21 since 2012. And more are likely. This month, Shelby County Schools is scheduled to release a facilities analysis that should set the stage for future closures. Superintendent Dorsey Hopson has said the district needs to shed as many as two dozen schools — and 27,000 seats — over the next four years. A Chalkbeat analysis identifies 25 schools at risk.

Exacerbating the challenges of shifting enrollment, families in Foote Homes scrambled to register their children for school as Memphis’ last public housing project prepared to close this month amid a delay in delivering housing vouchers to move elsewhere.

The new school year has officially begun, with the budget approved not a moment too soon for Shelby County Schools.

District leaders that began the budget season facing an $86 million shortfall eventually convinced county commissioners to significantly increase local funding, while also pulling some money from the school system’s reserve funds. The result is a $959 million budget that gives most of the district’s teachers a 3 percent raise and restores funding for positions deemed critical for continued academic progress.

The district also unveiled its first annual report on its growing sector of charter schools.

With charter schools now firmly entrenched in Memphis’ educational landscape, a Shelby County Schools analysis shows a mixed bag of performance, while calling on traditional and charter schools to learn from each other and promising better ways to track quality.