The Achievement School District has learned that justifying controversial school turnaround tactics with ambitious promises about student test scores in Memphis has done little to endear the state-run district to a community with a highly charged racial history, a new report says.

And the resulting negative perception has added yet another barrier to the ASD’s goal of turning around the state’s lowest performing schools, most of which are in Memphis, say researchers charged with providing an impartial assessment of the district’s work.

In a report released Monday, researchers said the ASD’s intense focus on improving student outcomes has come at the expense of effectively engaging the Memphis community and has failed to recognize the city’s unique racial history, including segregation, desegregation, white flight and the recent secession of six municipalities from Shelby County Schools.

“There is little doubt that many schools in Memphis are in dire need of improvement; but there is also little doubt that a long history of racial discrimination, violence, and a ‘by any means necessary’ effort to keep the suburban and city schools separate has provided Memphians with ample reasons to question the intentions of outsiders promising improvement,” said the report by the Tennessee Consortium on Research, Evaluation and Development, a research and policy center housed at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College of Education.

Created in 2010 as part of Tennessee’s Race to the Top plan, the ASD has authority under state law to wrest the worst schools from local district control and implement intensive turnaround strategies. It now oversees 29 schools, mostly in Memphis and formerly run by the local school district, and has assigned the majority to charter networks to operate.

The report says the culture of Memphis and structure of the state-run ASD collide in an unprecedented way in American education, raising concerns about power, financial profit and paternalism from much of the community that the district aims to serve — and making the ASD’s task of turning around neighborhood schools a formidable one.

"This is a really tough environment to make this work, which doesn’t mean it’s not possible, and that it’s not worth trying."Joshua Glazer, researcher

“Unlike most charter schools, it is not a voluntary option that exists alongside traditional schools, and unlike the New Orleans Recovery School District it has not replaced the existing district. Rather, the ASD must coexist in a complex, interdependent relationship with a local system whose ties to the community entail a complex mix of historical, social, and economic factors,” write authors Joshua Glazer and Cori Egan.

In an interview with Chalkbeat, Glazer emphasized that the ASD’s work is valuable — but challenging.

“This is a really tough environment to make this work, which doesn’t mean it’s not possible, and that it’s not worth trying,” Glazer said. “But they’re redefining local in a country that gets really worked up about local control. And they’re promising results that are really hard to deliver. And they’re doing it in this place with a deep, deep history of division.”

ASD Superintendent Malika Anderson agreed with the report’s conclusion that a broader community coalition is critical to the long-term sustainability of school turnaround work.

“Each year we have sought feedback on our engagement efforts and made improvements, which this report acknowledges and makes crystal clear,” she said. “The report itself demonstrates (the) close partnership between the ASD and researchers and an effort to learn and get better.”

The report says the ASD’s unified pursuit of an ambitious learning agenda, as well as its newest structure designed to give parents greater voice through its neighborhood advisory councils, have not generally worked and even have contributed to a perception of a system aimed at hostile school takeovers to benefit private interests. “It is remarkable how diametrically opposed the perspectives of ASD detractors are from those of supporters,” the report says.

The report, called The Tennessee Achievement School District: Race, History, and the Dilemma of Public Engagement, was funded by the Walton Family Foundation and Spencer Foundation, and was commissioned by the Tennessee Department of Education.

The report is the second in the last few months to highlight challenges the ASD faces. In December, Vanderbilt released a study showing that the ASD has had less of a positive impact on student test scores than have Innovation Zones, or “iZones,” run by local districts.

Last year, the same team of researchers lauded the ASD’s unified sense of mission shared with its charter school operators but cautioned that their focus on testing might cause leaders to lose sight of nuances that cannot be measured by tests — a warning they reiterate in this year’s report.

Here are some takeaways by researchers in this week’s report:

The ASD sought to redefine “local education” — but has yet to convince most Memphians.

The state-run district aimed to remove school boards and bureaucracy from the school improvement equation and instead focus on individual schools. But some community members have resented the loss of democratic input.

Detractors also have resented the presumption that Memphis can “be fixed” by outsiders and and are indignant at the implication that students will be better served by young (and often white) college graduates than by experienced local teachers (who are often black.)

"(The iZone) didn’t have to do a whole lot of professional development on cultures."Tomeka Hart, former school board member

Tomeka Hart, a former Memphis City Schools board member, told researchers that ASD leaders were at a disadvantage from the outset. “The people in the iZone have been here, they know this community. They didn’t have to do a whole lot of professional development on cultures,” said Hart, who was involved in creating the ASD as a member of the state’s Race to the Top team.

Over the years, the ASD has tried to allay concerns about lack of community input by overhauling their “matching” process, in which they select which low-performing schools will join their district and be matched with a charter operator. But their latest attempt — which included considerably more community members in the process — did not achieve its goals, the report said.

“Viewed from the perspective of the ASD, the (neighborhood advisory councils) proved unwieldy and unpredictable. … Moreover, accusations questioning the integrity and legitimacy of the process, depicted in the local press, seemed to generate additional controversy and resentment,” the report said. “In short, the plan (…) to defuse community backlash has yet to materialize.”

Community reaction to the ASD is inextricably tied to Memphis’ racial history.

Though disagreement on any major change in a city’s educational system is expected, researchers stressed “it would be a mistake to dismiss local concerns about the ASD as just another example of the tug and pull of American education politics.”

From desegregation in the 1950s and ’60s to busing students and white flight in the 1970s, the researchers traced a history of black students in Memphis City Schools being siphoned from the rest of the school populace. The heated conversations around the recent de-merger of six municipalities also had hints of racially charged motivations, researchers said.

The ASD’s takeover of schools in Shelby County with little parent involvement and an influx of young, white teachers “has been as much symbolic as practical,” feeding racial tension, the report said.

“To get buy-in from the community, they took some of the school leaders that were in that particular community in those schools and leveraged them as part of ASD’s ground staff. These were black faces, black voices, and black leaders, which was a very strategic move,” said LaShundra Richmond, deputy director of the Tennessee Black Alliance for Educational Options, who worked with the ASD to build community support. “But,” she told researchers, “there wasn’t any true partnership. The conversations and relationships didn’t continue. They lost the momentum and the trust that they had built.”

There’s also mistrust created by how the ASD has impacted Shelby County Schools.

Several critics noted the ASD’s adverse financial implications for Memphis’ local district, which already is under financial strain.

“Other community members expressed skepticism about the agenda behind the philanthropic investments that have played a key role in establishing and supporting the ASD,” the report said. “They suspect that the real purpose is to discredit the local system and to promote charter schools.’

But officials with Shelby County Schools agree that the ASD has improved public education in Memphis.

“Many people in Memphis view the iZone and the ASD as competing programs that vie for schools and bragging rights,” Glazer and Egan write.

Sharon Griffin, regional director of Shelby County Schools’ iZone school turnaround initiative, told researchers that “the ASD has caused us to really look in proactive ways how to better support schools. So, thank you for the pressure, because it’s making us take a hard look at what we thought we were doing right,” she said. 

The ASD created “a double-edged” sword by publicly focusing on test scores above all else — and not showing as dramatic results as the public expected.  

Because the ASD focused so much on how it would raise test scores, its failure to make a significant positive impact on scores, as described in the recent Vanderbilt study on school turnaround efforts in Tennessee, illegitimized the district in the eyes of the public. By only publicly focusing on one measure, district officials effectively put all of their eggs in one basket (although the ASD’s framework also tries to address related issues such as attendance and discipline.)

“Local districts are also under pressure to improve, but their legitimacy is grounded in far more than test scores,” according to the report.

ASD officials recognize the pitfall on their student outcome focus. “I think that with the ASD the perception in the community may be that we’ve over-promised what we can do in terms of the impact on student outcomes,” an ASD staff member told researchers. “I think there is this narrative now that the ASD said it was going to come in and transform these schools—that’s really not happening.”

The ASD’s “unambiguous line of authority and clear mission have enabled it to focus on a remarkably coherent set of goals.” But that’s come at a steep price: an adversarial relationship with the community it hopes to serve.

By avoiding the establishment of a school board or the bureaucracy of most urban school districts, the ASD has streamlined decision making, but to the detriment of community trust. The lack of local political institutions has caused many Memphians to believe their schools are being taken over by outside — not local — forces, and that the ASD is benefiting private interests, not the public’s.The ASD’s recent attempts to include the community last fall via neighborhood advisory councils did little to allay community members fears of outside meddling, and might even have exacerbated them.

Despite the challenges, the ASD will remain part of the state’s educational landscape.

“The immediate survival of the ASD does not appear to be threatened by these dynamics,” according to the report. “The ASD is enshrined in state law, and the governor and many members of the state legislature see it as an important component of the state’s education strategy.” Indeed, of 22 bills aimed at curtailing the ASD during last year’s legislative session, all but two were tabled. This year, bills to limit or abolish the ASD have been blocked before being even debated.

Memphis reporter Laura Faith Kebede contributed to this report.


Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include an expanded response from the ASD, with additional details and context throughout.