ASD

Tennessee’s school turnaround district might lose some power. Here’s why.

PHOTO: Grace Tatter
Malika Anderson was named superintendent of the Achievement School District in 2015 at the State Capitol, where she was flanked by Education Commissioner Candice McQueen and Gov. Bill Haslam.

Tennessee is making big changes to the way it addresses its lowest-performing schools, with big implications for its pioneering state turnaround district — and for the local urban districts where struggling schools are concentrated.

The state’s Achievement School District has wielded significant power in Tennessee since its launch in 2012, wresting control of 33 schools from local districts, recruiting charter operators to turn them around, and generating rancorous debate in the process. The school improvement model has been closely watched across the nation and is being emulated in states such as Nevada and North Carolina.

But under changes prompted by a new federal education law, Tennessee’s ASD would have less flexibility over which schools it can take over, while local districts would have more time to turn around the schools themselves. State Education Commissioner Candice McQueen estimated Monday that, under the new plan, at least 12 schools would be eligible for state takeover in the 2017-18 school year, down from 18 in 2015.

Memphis would be the city most impacted since it’s home to the greatest number of “priority schools” — those in the state’s bottom 5 percent — as well as nearly all of the ASD’s schools.

Under the new federal education law called the Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, Tennessee must give local districts the opportunity to improve priority schools on their own before swooping in with its most rigorous intervention: ASD takeover.

The state’s takeover of neighborhood schools has been especially contentious in Memphis, particularly after a 2015 Vanderbilt University study suggested that students at ASD schools are performing mostly at the same low levels that they would have had they remained with their local district.

The State Department of Education unveiled a preview of its proposed plan for ESSA last week, which touches on issues like accountability, school counselors, and teacher preparation, in addition to school improvement. State officials will gather feedback on the draft during town hall meetings in Memphis on Wednesday and in Nashville on Thursday, and submit Tennessee’s final plan to the U.S. Department of Education next spring.

Here’s what we know about the school improvement part of the plan:

What will happen to priority schools, and which ones will be eligible for ASD takeover?

Tennessee’s proposed plan would separate the state’s priority list into three tracks.

Schools will be on the first track if they meet two conditions:

  • They are on at least one of the previous priority lists, in 2012 and 2014, as well as the 2017 priority list coming out this summer;
  • They have had the same intervention, like becoming part of the district’s innovation zone, for three or more years without improvement according to criteria to be set by the state, or have had no intervention at all.

The second track will consist of schools on the 2017 list and at least one earlier list, but that have high growth scores. These schools will have until 2020, when the state will release the next priority list, to continue their turnaround work without the possibility of ASD intervention.

The third track will consist of schools on the priority list for the first time in 2017. They will enter an unprecedented partnership with the state, working to draft and implement a turnaround plan based on national research and evidence. The hope is that by 2020, the plan will have worked, and they will be off of the priority list.

Though districts will have more power in school turnaround, McQueen emphasizes that the state will be an active partner.

“This is not the district on its own,” she said. “There would be a great deal of state partnership in terms of planning, and state criteria to be met.”

What will happen to low-performing schools already in the ASD?

McQueen said she hears that question a lot from local district leaders but doesn’t have an answer for them yet. She said the state is working to address the issue, which was the topic of a state legislative hearing this summer.

The question is important because the ASD’s effect on schools has been uneven. Many of the ASD’s first schools, taken from local districts in 2012, are still in the bottom 5 percent, according to the most recently available test scores.

Currently, only the ASD has authority over its own schools. Under state law, if an ASD charter operator underperforms for three consecutive years, the state-run district can replace them with a higher-performing operator.

“Of course, you can’t do that indefinitely, so we will be making clear exit criteria as well,” McQueen said. “Some of this will be evolving, based on what we learn about the schools.”

How will 2017’s priority list be different than in years past?

The state’s priority list has been based on a ranking of schools by the percentage of students who passed end-of-year tests for math, English and science. But under Tennessee’s proposed plan, the state wants to take growth into account.

That way, “you’re not doomed to be a priority school just because you’re in the bottom 5 percent according to achievement,” said Nakia Towns, assistant state commissioner of research.

Because of a 2015 state law, priority schools will also get a new label: F. Beginning next fall, all Tennessee schools will be assigned a letter grade based on several criteria. As the lowest performing schools, priority schools will receive automatic Fs.

Some educators worry that the school grading system, which was not endorsed by the State Department of Education, might further stigmatize schools that already are struggling. State officials hope to offset that by giving priority schools more resources and support through direct funding and competitive grants.

“We realize it’s often the poorest communities who will have schools with the lowest grade — but who will also need those resources,” Towns said.

school turnaround lessons

Too many good teachers are quitting Tennessee’s Achievement School District, researchers say

PHOTO: Micaela Watts
Students at Cherokee Elementary, an iZone school in Memphis, engage with their teacher. Tennessee's iZones have had success recruiting teachers with high marks in the state's teacher evaluation system.

A growing question in Memphis and across Tennessee has been why local school improvement efforts seem to be outperforming the state’s 5-year-old flagship initiative.

Now, researchers charged with studying that initiative have a hypothesis: Schools in the Achievement School District have struggled to hold on to their highest-rated teachers.

For their latest report, released on Tuesday, researchers at the Tennessee Education Research Alliance at Vanderbilt’s Peabody College partnered with the University of Kentucky to examine the extent to which the ASD and local turnaround initiatives called innovation zones, or “iZones,” have been able to recruit and retain teachers with top ratings.

They found that ASD teachers left their jobs far more frequently than teachers in iZone schools in Memphis, Nashville and Chattanooga.

That wasn’t a surprise the first year a school was in the ASD, given the requirement that teachers in turnaround schools must reapply for their jobs.

But even in following years, fully half of the ASD’s teachers left its schools each year. Among iZone schools, the corresponding rates were 40 percent and 23 percent, respectively.

In both initiatives, lower-rated teachers were replaced by better ones. Researchers found this to be more pronounced in iZone schools where, on Tennessee’s 5-point scale, incoming teachers scored an average of more than a half point higher than those moving to other schools or leaving the profession. In the ASD, incoming teachers averaged just over a third of a point  higher than outgoing teachers.

“The story seems to be one of general success in getting effective teachers in the door of these turnaround schools, and the iZone schools are also managing to keep and improve them,” said Vanderbilt’s Gary Henry, who co-authored the report.

Henry said disruption is a key part of school turnaround work, and that it might be necessary to lose some bad teachers before a school can thrive. But just as necessary is improving teachers already at a school — and that takes time.

“The iZone hired good teachers, kept good teachers, and their teachers improved,” he said.

Both iZones and the ASD had more difficulty recruiting good teachers for the schools they absorbed in the 2014-2015 school year. Henry said it’s not clear why that happened.

It could be because both the ASD and the Memphis iZone, the largest of the three, added high schools, and it’s typically harder to get effective high school teachers to switch schools. Or, it could be that Memphis, where nearly all of the ASD schools are located, needs more good teachers in general.

“Memphis might be reaching a ceiling on the number of effective teachers willing to move into priority schools,” he said of schools that are academically in the state’s bottom 5 percent. “They’re going to have to expand their pool in order to attract the type of talent needed to transform the lowest-performing schools.”

The researchers note that the iZone gains might not last. The one in Memphis has used teacher pay incentives to lure high-quality teachers to its schools, relying at least in part on philanthropic funds. Without those funds, it’s not clear if the iZone could be expanded or sustained.

“It’s terrific when philanthropies are able to support mechanisms proven to work,” he said, “but in the long run, it’s uncertain whether Memphis will be able to maintain these gains.”

ASD Superintendent Malika Anderson said she is heartened that more effective teachers have moved to working in historically low-performing schools. She attributed the ASD’s initial recruiting challenges to being “a big unknown,” but expressed optimism about the future.

“As we increase recruitment and retention of effective teachers in our schools, the ASD’s growing priority is to champion the efforts of local districts, community partners and the Department of Education to strengthen the pipeline and critical supports for effective teachers in all schools,” Anderson said in a statement.

This report follows a high-profile 2015 study that showed schools in Tennessee’s iZones had positive effects on student learning, while the ASD’s effects were statistically insignificant.  Henry said Vanderbilt researchers hope to examine in the future how school quality was impacted at the schools left by highly rated teachers to go to the iZone or the ASD.

You can read the full report here.

Shrinking

It’s official. Achievement School District will close a second school in Memphis

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
KIPP Memphis University Middle is closing after three years of operation under the state-run Achievement School District. The school operates in a former school building operated by Shelby County Schools.

In the months since KIPP decided to pull out of one of its state-run charter schools, officials with Tennessee’s turnaround district have been publicly mum about what happens next, leaving most to believe the Memphis school will close at the end of the school year.

A top official with the Achievement School District now confirms that’s the plan.

The ASD is not seeking a successor to KIPP for Memphis University Middle School and “is not obligated to look for another operator,” said Bobby White, the ASD’s chief of external affairs.

White noted that the South Memphis school was started from scratch — and is not an existing low-performing school taken from the local district with the charge of turning it around.

University Middle thus becomes the second ASD charter school that will close under the 5-year-old turnaround district. Klondike Preparatory Academy Elementary, a turnaround school also in Memphis, is already slated to shut down this spring after its operator, Gestalt Community Schools, pulls out of the ASD completely. KIPP will continue to operate three other ASD schools in Memphis and four other charters through Shelby County Schools.

The confirmation of a second closure comes as state leaders are reexamining the ASD’s structure and purpose and proposing to curtail its ability to grow — even as the state-run district struggles with sustainability due to a lack of students in Memphis, where the bulk of its schools are located. A bill filed recently in the legislature would stop the ASD from starting new charter schools such as KIPP’s University Middle, rather than just overhauling existing schools that are struggling.

The ASD was created as a vehicle to dramatically improve schools in the state’s bottom 5 percent but began authorizing charter organizations to start some new schools as well. The pending legislation, which is supported by leaders of both the State Department of Education and the ASD, would return the district to its original purpose.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Bobby White is the ASD’s chief of external affairs.

KIPP’s Memphis board cited low enrollment and a remote location when voting last December to pull out this spring from University Middle, which it opened in 2014. Its leaders have told parents they plan to merge the school with KIPP Memphis Preparatory Middle, another ASD school located about nine miles away.

Even with KIPP’s departure, ASD officials had authority to continue to operate University Middle with another manager. However, the challenges with enrollment and location made that option highly unlikely.

The middle school is housed in the former White’s Chapel Elementary School building, which Shelby County Schools closed in 2013 with 181 students — more than KIPP was able to attract under the ASD.

Under-enrollment was also cited by leaders of Gestalt, a Memphis-based charter organization that announced last fall plans to pull out of both of its ASD schools. The state-run district has since found a new operator for one Gestalt school and confirmed last month that it plans to close the other.