Tennessee’s Achievement School District ranks high on “conditions for success”

Tennessee’s state-run Achievement School District was the only entity in the country that received top marks in every category of a national education policy center’s ranking of “conditions for success” for one strategy for managing and improving school districts.

The Center for Reinventing Public Education (CRPE), at the University of Washington, coordinates a network of school districts nationally that are working to create “portfolio school districts.” It defines a portfolio district as one that is “creating more high-quality schools regardless of provider, giving schools autonomy over staff and funding, and holding all schools accountable for performance.”

The CRPE evaluated policies in place in 19 districts around the country to see how they lined up with its “best practices” for creating a portfolio school district. Those components are: Good options and choices for all families; school autonomy; pupil-based funding for all schools; talent-seeking strategy; sources of support for schools, performance-based accountability for schools; and extensive public engagement.

Here’s the CRPE’s evaluation sheet, which breaks down those components into smaller categories. (For example, “school autonomy” includes the following survey questions: “All schools control pay. All schools control budget. All schools control curriculum choice.”)

Tennessee’s state-run district was the only one of those 19 that was ranked as a “national exemplar” in every category. Louisiana’s Recovery School District (RSD), a state-run district that runs many schools in New Orleans, was in second place, ranking as a national exemplar in every category except sources of support for schools and public engagement.

The ASD, which was created by Tennessee’s First to the Top law in 2010, was modeled after the RSD. It is currently running 16 schools: 15 in Memphis and one in Nashville. It plans to eventually be running as many as many as 50 schools, enrolling as many as 19,000 students, within the next 3 years.

The district’s goal is to take schools that are performing in the bottom 5 percent of the state and move them to the top 25 percent. Its strategy for doing so involves turning most over to charter management organizations that the state-run district will then oversee.

Metro Nashville Public Schools was also ranked in the CRPE’s list, but was not ranked so highly: It was ranked as “much work to be done” on student funding and support for schools, and as either “in progress” or “some elements in place” on every other category. 

The merged Shelby County School District was not ranked in this CRPE effort, but is in the network for 2013.

Elliot Smalley, the ASD’s chief of staff, wrote in a blog post about the ranking that “we’re taking this in stride as a piece of very helpful data and a nod to the kinds of ingredients we’ve put into the recipe…But if we’re unable to be a ‘national exemplar’ in a version of this with an 8th column—student results—this won’t matter much.”

“Now that we’re starting to create the right kind of context, what are we going to do with it?” he wrote.

The district is in its second year running schools. Its performance has been mixed so far.

For more on the history of the district, on some of its struggle to get community buy-in, and about the strategies it’s using in schools and to recruit teachers, you can check out this paper from the Fordham Institute in Washington, which suggests that the Achievement School District could be a model for other states looking to improve low-performing schools.

union power

Charter teachers won big in nation’s first strike. What now?

PHOTO: Yana Kunichoff / Chalkbeat
Teachers from Acero charter schools in Chicago protest stalled negotiations Oct. 24, 2018, as they readied to vote on authorizing a strike.

Some 500 unionized teachers joined in the nation’s first charter strike last week, and succeeded in negotiating wage increases, smaller class sizes and a shorter school day. Their gains could foreshadow next year’s citywide contract negotiations — between the Chicago Teachers Union, with its contract expiring in June, and Chicago Public Schools.

“The issue of class size is going to be huge,” said Chris Geovanis, the union’s director of communications. “It is a critically important issue in every school.”

Unlike their counterparts in charters, though, teachers who work at district-run schools can’t technically go on strike to push through a cap on the number of students per class. That’s because the Illinois Education Labor Relations Act defines what issues non-charter public school teachers can bargain over, and what issues can lead to a strike.

An impasse on issues of compensation or those related to working conditions, such as length of the school day or teacher evaluations, could precipitate a strike. But disagreements over class sizes or school closures, among other issues, cannot be the basis for a strike.

The number of students per class has long been a point of contention among both district and charter school teachers.

Educators at Acero had hopes of pushing the network to limit class sizes to 24-28 students, depending on the grade. However, as Acero teachers capped their fourth day on the picket line, they reached an agreement with the charter operator on a cap of 30 students — down from the current cap of 32 students.

Andy Crooks, a special education apprentice, also known as a teacher’s aide, at Acero’s Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz school and a member of the teachers bargaining team, said that even having two fewer students in a classroom would make a huge difference.

“You really do get a lot more time with your students,” Crooks said. “And if you are thinking about kindergarten in particular, two less 5-year-olds really can help set the tone of the classroom.”

In district-run schools, classes are capped at 28 students in kindergarten through third grade, and at 31 students in fourth through sixth grade. But a survey by the advocacy group Parents 4 Teachers, which supports educators taking on inequality, found that during the 2017-2018 school year, 21 percent of K-8 classrooms had more students than district guidelines allowed. In 18 elementary school classrooms, there were 40 or more students.

The issue came up at last week’s Board of Education meeting, at which Ivette Hernandez, a parent of a first-grader at Virgil Grissom Elementary School in the city’s Hegewisch neighborhood, said her son’s classes have had more than 30 students in them. When the children are so young and active — and when they come into classrooms at so many different skill levels — “the teachers can’t handle 30 kids in one class,” she told the board.

Alderman Sue Garza, a former counselor, accompanied Hernandez. She also spoke before the board about classroom overcrowding — worrying aloud that, in some grades at one school in particular, the number of students exceeded the building’s fire codes. (Board chair Frank Clark said a district team would visit the school to ensure compliance fire safety policies.)

While the Chicago Teachers Union aren’t technically allowed to strike over class sizes, the union does have a history of pushing the envelope when it comes to bargaining.

Back in 2012, when the Chicago Teachers Union last went on strike, they ended up being able to secure the first limit on class sizes in 20 years because the district permitted the union to bargain over class size.

They also led a bargaining campaign that included discussion over racial disparities in Chicago education and school closures, arguing that these trends impacted the working conditions of teachers.

“Even if you can’t force an employer to bargain over an issue, you can push them to bargain over the impact of an issue,” Bob Bruno, a labor professor at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, explained.

The Chicago Teachers Union also emerged from its 2012 negotiations with guarantees of additional “wraparound services,” such as access to onsite social workers and school counselors.

What's Your Education Story?

As the 2018 school year begins, join us for storytelling from Indianapolis educators

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy/Chalkbeat
Sarah TeKolste, right, and Lori Jenkins at a Teacher Story Slam, in April.

In partnership with Teachers Lounge Indy, Chalkbeat is hosting another teacher story slam this fall featuring educators from across the city.

Over the past couple of years, Chalkbeat has brought readers personal stories from teachers and students through the events. Some of our favorites touched on how a teacher won the trust of her most skeptical student, why another teacher decided to come out to his students, and one educator’s call to ramp up the number of students pursuing a college education.

The event, 5:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 13, is free and open to the public — please RSVP here.

Event details:

5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.
Thursday, Sept. 13, 2018
Tube Factory artspace
1125 Cruft St., Indianapolis, IN 46203
Get tickets here and find more on Facebook

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