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.

ASD Reset

Tennessee’s Achievement School District would return to its original purpose under a bill that its leaders support

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Achievement School District Superintendent Malika Anderson speaks in October to Memphis parents and teachers at Humes Preparatory Academy Middle School, which will lose one charter operator and get a new one at the end of the 2016-2017 school year.

Tennessee’s state-run turnaround district could soon get its wings clipped — and its leaders are among those calling for the changes.

Right now, the Achievement School District can both overhaul low-performing schools and start new schools. Lawmakers are considering a bill that would stop the district from starting new schools and make it harder for the district to take over struggling schools.

Rep. David Hawk of Greeneville filed the bill last week at the request of the State Department of Education. In addition to curbing new starts, the legislation proposes changing the rules so that the ASD no longer can take over struggling schools unilaterally. Instead, the state would give local districts time and resources to turn around their lowest-performing schools.

The hope is that, with extra support, local districts will improve schools without the Achievement School District interceding.

Taken together, the two proposals would curtail the district’s ability to grow at a time when it already is closing schools. In recent months, two charter operators have backed out of schools within the district, pointing to a shrinking presence for the ASD regardless of whether the state changes its approach to school turnaround.

The bill’s wide support suggests that the aggressive approach originally taken by the ASD is falling out of favor.

State education officials say the proposed changes are meant to restore the state-run district to the purpose it was intended in 2010, when lawmakers created the ASD to take over schools that were so far gone that their districts couldn’t — or wouldn’t — improve them.

Read more about how the State Department of Education wants to change its approach to school turnaround work.

Starting in 2011, though, some charter operators tapped by the district were given the option to open new schools too.

Four operators used that option, and so far they have launched five new ASD schools. A sixth, from the national network Rocketship, is slated to open in Nashville this fall. It would be the ASD’s last new school if Hawk’s bill passes and the district’s work is limited to turnaround.

“That is the purpose of the work we’re doing; it is the purpose of the ASD,” said Education Commissioner Candice McQueen. “We need to clarify, so there’s no confusion.”

PHOTO: Grace Tatter
Rocketship’s new school will share space with a North Nashville church when it opens this fall. The school might be the ASD’s last new school start.

ASD officials say the new rules are necessary in part because of Memphis’s declining student enrollment — which is putting pressure on all local schools.

“We already have far too many school buildings for the number of students we have,” said Bobby S. White, the ASD’s chief of external affairs. “New starts have to come off the table, and we have to be comfortable with that.”

The bill came out of the State Education Department’s plan to comply with the new federal education law known as the Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA. A state spokeswoman confirmed that ASD Superintendent Malika Anderson helped to draft the school improvement part of the plan, including the language around the district she runs.

“We’re refining our focus,” White explained. “It is at some level informed by feedback and our own learning.”

The ASD underwent scrutiny last summer by lawmakers who had questions about the ASD’s purpose, effectiveness and end game. With the endorsement of state officials, the bill reining in the district is likely to become law. In that case, the ASD will have to revise its agreements with charter operators who have been told since 2011 that they can open new schools.

Such changes run the risk of shaking operators’ commitment to the state-run district at a time when two operators already have pulled the plug on one or more of their ASD schools. They also could potentially dissuade other charter operators from choosing to work in Tennessee.

Turnaround work is considered far more challenging than starting new charter schools. School leaders have a harder time establishing a school culture and also inherit challenges that led to the school’s low performance in the first place.

But White said all of the operators are aware of the possible changes. “We’ve not really had pushback,” he said.

McQueen said operators who are committed to the district’s mission shouldn’t be deterred.

“Our intention is to attract the operators who want to come in and … take schools that are in a community, take them with all grade levels at one time, and do this school turnaround work,” she said.