Shelby County Schools

Memphis educators look to build rating system to help parents better navigate schools

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools
This snapshot of charter school performance was used to indicate the value of having a school performance framework at a recent board meeting. This is NOT the scorecard the district intends to use.

Suppose you are a parent in Shelby County and you want to know which school is the best for your child. The state report card has information, but it takes at least some background knowledge to weed through the sea of acronyms such as TVAAS, NAEP or ACT.  The Tri-State Defender puts out an annual guide to charter, state-run, and district schools, but its profiles only include test scores in four subjects. The district website’s “Schools” section has each school’s address and principal name. Great Schools, a nonprofit website, has parent reviews and test scores but is missing some district information.

Parents often find themselves relying on word of mouth or conducting their own research into schools, and many do not know where their school stacks up in the district or state-wide.

Shelby County officials are hoping to change that.

A committee of school choice advocates, Achievement School District and Shelby County Schools officials are working to create a “school performance framework” aimed at helping parents and students understand how their schools are doing and navigate the increasing number of choices in the district.

Shelby County charter and traditional schools and the Achievement School District would all use the same template to rate schools’ academic performance, growth and culture. Though the framework will be new to Shelby County, other large urban districts, including Nashville, Denver, and New York City, have been using similar systems for years.

The district will have the framework in place by the 2015-16 school year.

Here’s more about why the district plans to create a school performance framework and how similar tools are working in other districts.

Why does Shelby County need a school performance framework?

In Memphis, the public education landscape is growing increasingly complex: The charter sector is growing, the state-run Achievement School District is expanding, and parents can opt to transfer their children through the district’s optional schools and general choice transfer programs.

“Given the growing number of school options, including charters and the ASD, the goal is to create a common school performance framework,” said Bradley Leon, the district’s chief strategy and innovation officer. Leon said the framework would help parents and students understand how their schools are doing; help them navigate as they choose schools for their children; and help the district understand its own schools.

Schools’ academic performance is already being used in major decisions like which schools to close and which should become part of the state-run Achievement School District, and parents can already opt to attend a charter school or can apply to transfer to various schools in the district. But that information about the schools is not compiled in one place. Officials say parents are often shocked by dramatic interventions like ASD takeovers because they do not know that their child attends a school ranked in the bottom five percent in the state. Other parents rely on word-of-mouth and reputation to determine that they should try to send their children to popular optional programs like the one at White Station Middle.

What would be included in the framework?

The framework would likely include a school’s performance on standardized tests; its growth in test scores; and measures of school culture. But just what measures will be used and how they will be weighted and presented has yet to be determined. Figuring out how to accurately assess and reflect school culture and climate is important but tricky, Leon said.

Around the country, each district’s framework looks different, and frameworks have evolved over time. New York City, for instance, includes a “peer school” component, in which schools are measured against other schools with similar student bodies. Nashville’s shares how many “high-quality seats” are in a school. Denver uses a teacher survey to evaluate school climate.

How will the framework be used?

District officials say knowing how schools rank should help parents decide where to send their students to school.

But the framework could eventually be used for higher-stakes decisions, too. Leon used a sample framework to demonstrate how the district might decide which charter schools should be approved for expansion in the district. The district is also likely to close more schools in coming years, and, given that the district is already citing low academic performance as a reason to close schools, the report card might be used to guide those decisions.

Who will be involved in creating it?

A working group of district officials and local education leaders has been involved in early meetings about what the framework should include. The district plans to involve parents, charter and district school leaders, teachers, and others over the next few months.

The initial working group includes Leon; Mary Earhart-Brown, Shelby County Schools’ manager of parent and community engagement; Sharon Griffin, Shelby County’s regional superintendent for its Innovation Zone Schools; Bill White, Shelby County’s director of planning and accountability; Achievement School District’s superintendent, Chris Barbic, and chief portfolio officer Malika Anderson; Jamal McCall, the director of KIPP Memphis; Derwin Sisnett, the director of Gestalt Community Schools; Stand For Children’s Memphis director Cardell Orrin; and Strive Mid-South director Mark Sturgis.

It’s good that the district recognizes that the ASD and charters make up part of the full range of our education landscape,” said Orrin. “Including them maximizes the value of the performance framework for everyone.” 

Most of the participants are proponents of school choice. The Center for Reinventing Public Education, or CRPE, will consult with the district to create the framework at no cost to the district, Leon said. CRPE highlighted the district’s need to provide more information to parents about school performance in a report released earlier this week.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation funded several districts, including Nashville, Denver, and New York City, to create school performance frameworks as part of a “district-charter collaboration” grant. The Gates Foundation has also funded CRPE and Great Schools. (Chalkbeat also receives funds from the Gates Foundation.)

What do similar frameworks look like in other districts and how are they working?

In New York City, which introduced the framework in 2007, some school leaders disapproved of the competitive dynamic introduced by the school performance framework (though high-scoring schools often celebrated their results). District officials said earlier this school year that the framework focused too heavily on test scores and could encourage schools to narrow their curricula. The district released a report on school accountability earlier this year, saying the focus should be on supporting rather than punishing schools.

Both the New York City and Denver districts also received criticism for weighting growth over achievement. In New York, parents said this could be misleading, as high-performing magnet schools could receive the same scores as schools with very low levels of proficiency if both schools showed similar growth over time.

For similar reasons, Denver is considering updating its rating system this year to shift more weight to student achievement rather than growth. It is also planning to incorporate more information about younger elementary grades.

Orrin said that in Shelby County, the weighting of various components of the system had yet to be determined. He said there had already been debate about whether growth or achievement should be more heavily weighted. He argued that for some, a school that is “growing” students could be a better fit than one that has high scores but lower growth.

What are the next steps?

The district’s planning committee will meet one more time before a more public planning process begins.

Election Forum

Tennesseans are about to get their first good look at candidates for governor on education

Former Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen speaks as his successor, Gov. Bill Haslam, listens during a 2017 forum hosted by the State Collaborative on Reforming Education. Tennesseans will elect their next governor in November.

For almost 16 years, two Tennessee governors from two different political parties have worked off mostly the same playbook when it comes to K-12 education.

This year, voters will choose a new governor who will determine if that playbook stays intact — or takes a different direction from the administrations of Bill Haslam, a Republican leaving office next January, and Phil Bredesen, the Democrat who preceded him.

Voters will get to hear from all but one of the major candidates Tuesday evening during the first gubernatorial forum televised statewide. Organizers say the spotlight on education is fitting since, based on one poll, it’s considered one of the top three issues facing Tennessee’s next governor. Both K-12 and higher education are on the table.

Candidates participating are:

  • Mae Beavers, a Republican from Mt. Juliet and former Tennessee state senator;
  • Randy Boyd, a Republican from Knoxville and former commissioner of Economic and Community Development and a Republican from Knoxville;
  • Karl Dean, a Democrat and former mayor of Nashville;
  • Rep. Craig Fitzhugh, a Democrat from Ripley and minority leader in the Tennessee House of Representatives;
  • Rep. Beth Harwell, a Republican from Nashville and speaker of the Tennessee House of Representatives;
  • Bill Lee, a Republican businessman from Williamson County

The seventh major candidate, U.S. Rep. Diane Black, a Republican from Gallatin, is in the midst of a congressional session in Washington, D.C.

The next governor will help decide whether Tennessee will stay the course under its massive overhaul of K-12 education initiated under Bredesen’s watch. The work was jump-started by the state’s $500 million federal Race to the Top award, for which Tennessee agreed to adopt the Common Core academic standards for math and English; incorporate students’ scores from standardized tests in annual teacher evaluations; and establish a state-run turnaround district to intervene in low-performing schools at an unprecedented level.

Tennessee has since enjoyed steady student growth and watched its national rankings rise, but the transition hasn’t been pain-free. Pushback on its heavy-handed turnaround district led leaders to widen school improvement strategies. They also ordered new academic standards due to political backlash over the Common Core (though the revised standards are still basically grounded in Common Core).

A major issue now is whether the next governor and legislature will retain Tennessee’s across-the-board system of accountability for students, teachers, schools and districts. Snafus and outright failures with TNReady, the new standardized test that serves as the lynchpin, have prompted some calls to make the assessment just a diagnostic tool or scrap it altogether. Haslam and his leadership team have stood firm.

“We as Tennesseans made the right call — the tough call — on the policies we’ve pursued,” Education Commissioner Candice McQueen told Chalkbeat recently. “Nearly every other state has compromised in some way on some of these core foundational components of policy work, and we have not.”

The State Collaborative on Reforming Education, an advocacy group that works closely with Tennessee’s Department of Education, is a co-host of Tuesday’s forum. Known as SCORE, the group has sought to shape the election-year conversation with priorities that include teacher quality, improving literacy, and developing school leaders — all outgrowths of learnings during Tennessee’s Race to the Top era.

SCORE President David Mansouri said the goal is to maintain the momentum of historic gains in student achievement from the last decade. “The next administration’s education policy decisions will be crucial in determining whether Tennessee students continue to progress faster than students in other states and whether they graduate ready for postsecondary success,” he said Monday.

The one-hour forum will delve into a range of issues. College and career readiness, education equity, and school funding will be among the topics broached before each candidate is allowed a one-minute closing statement, according to David Plazas, a Tennessean editor who will help moderate the discussion.

“It will be really exciting,” Plazas promised. “We’re hoping the candidates are prepared to talk substantively on the issues and to avoid slogans.”

The event begins at 7 p.m. CT at Nashville’s Belmont University. Along with SCORE, it’s being co-hosted by USA TODAY NETWORK and Nashville’s NewsChannel 5. You can livestream the event here and learn more about attending or watching here.

Tennessee’s primary election is set for Aug. 2, with the general election on Nov. 6.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede