Tennessee

Vanderbilt study: iZone more effective than ASD in turning around struggling schools thus far

PHOTO: Kayleigh Skinner
Achievement School District Superintendent Chris Barbic speaks at an ASD test score rally in July 2015 in Memphis.​

Days before the Tennessee Achievement School District is to announce whether it will take over five more Memphis schools next year, Vanderbilt has released a study suggesting the city’s low-performing schools would be better off in Shelby County Schools’ Innovation Zone.

The study, released Tuesday, shows that iZone schools have sizeable positive effects on student test scores, while the ASD’s effects are marginal. That means that students at ASD schools are performing mostly at the same low levels they likely would have had their school not been taken over by the state-run school turnaround district.

The study’s release comes at a time when the ASD is not only expanding in Tennessee, but several states plan to replicate it. ASD leaders have taken issue with the results, saying that it’s too early to draw decisive conclusions.

“The tough work of school turnarounds take time – the study itself says it takes up to five years for the reforms to take meaningful hold,” says a statement from the ASD leaders, whose first cohort of schools is in their fourth academic year in Memphis.

Researchers say it would be premature to scrap the ASD, which has been credited with creating a sense of urgency to improve the state’s worst academic schools. Students who have been in ASD schools for three years did see slight positive effects in test scores, and research typically shows that education reforms take a few years to show results.

That makes the iZone’s success in Memphis all the more remarkable, said lead researcher Ron Zimmer.

“I think the iZone schools are showing promising results that we can feel good about, and they showed them almost immediately,” he said.

Both the ASD and iZones were created when Tennessee won the federal Race to the Top grant in 2010 to improve struggling schools, among other things. Under the ASD model, low-performing schools are removed from their local districts into the ASD’s oversight, and most are placed with nonprofit charter operators to manage. Innovation Zone schools remain in the local district but, like charters, have the autonomy to hire and fire staff, overhaul their curriculums, give their teachers bonuses, and add time to the school day.

In Memphis, which has the state’s highest concentration of low-performing schools, the ASD currently oversees 27 schools, and the iZone has 18. School districts in Nashville and Chattanooga operate smaller iZones as well, and the ASD also oversees two Nashville schools.

The study did not explore why the iZone might be outperforming the ASD at this point. But another Vanderbilt study released last year showed that ASD schools had high levels of teacher turnover and student mobility in their first year — factors that often lead to a decline in test scores. Turnover leveled out in later years, which might be why they saw their scores rebound, and in some cases, surpass their pre-takeover levels.

Though the iZone managed to turn around schools without a drop in first-year scores, Zimmer said it remains to be seen if that success is financially sustainable. Already, the district is struggling to find money for the initiative, which is expensive to fund.

“There’s a question of how iZones are achieving this and is it sustainable?” Zimmer said. “That’s always an issue of reform. Is it scalable?”

ASD leaders said they believe that the data is inconclusive based on a young cohort and small sampling of schools and emphasized gains by ASD schools in both student proficiency and growth.

“Over the last three years, our schools outpaced the state in math and science, and our second- and third-year cohorts of schools averaged the highest possible growth rating (Level 5 TVAAS),” said the state district’s statement.

Editor’s note: This story updates a previous version with additional statements by ASD leaders.

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.