More Memphis schools move off state’s list of low scorers

PHOTO: Kyle Kurlick for Chalkbeat

Two years into a push to raise test scores in Tennessee’s lowest-performing schools, some of the most notable gains were concentrated in Memphis — and in schools that were not subject to the state’s most intensive interventions.

The findings come from the new list of 85 “priority schools” — or schools in the bottom 5 percent statewide — released by the Tennessee Department of Education on Tuesday. The list suggests that some schools in the bottom 5 percent in 2012 jumped forward without a significant overhaul, even as the state and local districts revamped other schools’ staffs, programs, and operations.

That outcome raises questions about which strategies are most effective as the state plans to expand its efforts to improve struggling schools. But state and district officials said they were satisfied with their progress up to now, noting that the bottom 5 percent of schools this year scored higher than the bottom 5 percent two years ago.

Indeed, the test score gains by schools in the bottom 5 percent were larger than the state’s overall gains over the last two years.

“This is hard work, but results from the first round … show us that it’s doable,” said state Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman. “We’ve seen signs of hope and that’s why we believe it is critical to continue investing in these schools.”

Tennessee promised to improve schools in the bottom 5 percent when it applied for a waiver from some federal education rules. The new list suggests that the goal remains ambitious: A full 50 of the 83 schools on the 2012 priority list are still on the list now, and once again all schools on the priority list serve mostly poor students.

And the trajectories of schools that landed on the first list do not at first glance offer any clear clues about the best approach to boosting performance.

Schools on the priority list can be taken over by the state-run Achievement School District or placed in a special turnaround group within a district, known as an Innovation Zone or Innovation Cluster, which grants schools additional fund as well as new staffs, schedules, academic programs. But not all schools on the list undergo formal changes.

Of the 83 schools on the 2012 list, 17 have been turned into ASD-run schools; 17 joined innovation zones; and nine, including three alternative schools, were closed outright. Thirty-eight schools — including 22 in Shelby County and three Memphis charter schools — received no intervention other than the regular school improvement strategies in place in their districts.

Some schools that fell into each of these categories boosted scores enough to get off the priority list.

The 13 schools in Shelby County’s “Innovation Zone” fared best. Six of them, or nearly half, improved so much that they are no longer at risk of state takeover.

The three Memphis charter schools and nine of the 22 Shelby County Schools that were not closed, placed in the I-Zone or added to the ASD are also no longer on the priority list.

That was true for just one of the four schools that Nashville placed into its “Innovation Cluster.”

In the state-run ASD, two of the six schools the district took over two years ago—one in Memphis, one in Nashville—were no longer in the bottom 5 percent. The schools the district added last year were not eligible to come off of the list due to state rules, while three ASD elementary schools do not appear on the new list because they do not have tested grades.

Of the 85 schools on the new list, just 59 are in Memphis, including nine that the district no longer runs — down from 69 two years ago. Eleven Nashville schools joined the list for the first time.

“The good news is that Memphis had a lot of schools moving off the list,” said Barbara Prescott, a former Memphis City Schools board member who is now the director of the PeopleFirst initiative.

Kevin Woods, the chair of Shelby County Schools’ board, said the strong showing by Memphis schools reflects the fact that the district supports all of its schools, not just the ones that it tries to overhaul.

“The results we are seeing reflect the work of strong and stable school leadership,” he said. “The results are not just in our I-Zone schools but in many of our schools that have chosen to recruit and retain the best teachers while also using data to drive decision-making.”

And the head of the state’s largest teacher group said the new list showed that existing schools could also improve students’ performance without shaking up their staffs.

“The teachers and administrators are going above and beyond trying to provide a quality education to all the students and our public schools,” said Barbara Gray, a former Shelby County Schools administrator and the new president of the Tennessee Education Association, in an interview. “We need to invest in our traditional public schools.”

ASD Superintendent Chris Barbic said he was satisfied because the previous list had been a wake-up call that moved the state in the right direction.

“When we see a sense of urgency that didn’t exist before, that’s great. The days of having a failing school for a decade are over,” Barbic said. “Part of the value of the ASD is the existential threat of the ASD: If your school doesn’t get better it’s going to get taken away. ”

Correction: An earlier version of this post misstated the percent of schools  that had come off of the priority list in some districts. Some schools in the ASD were not eligible to be removed from the list. It also listed the TEA’s Ms. Gray as a former Memphis City rather than Shelby County administrator. The post has been updated to reflect those changes. 

First Person

Why the phrase ‘with fidelity’ is an affront to good teaching

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

“With fidelity” are some of the most damaging words in education.

Districts spend a ton of money paying people to pick out massively expensive, packaged curriculums, as if every one of a thousand classrooms needs the exact same things. Then officials say, over and over again, that they must be implemented “with fidelity.” What they mean is that teachers better not do anything that would serve their students’ specific needs.

When that curriculum does nothing to increase student achievement, it is not blamed. The district person who found it and purchased it is never blamed. Nope. They say, “Well, the teachers must not have been implementing it with fidelity.”

It keeps happening because admitting that schools are messy and students are human and teaching is both creative and artistic would also mean you have to trust teachers and let them have some power. Also, there are some really crappy teachers out there, and programs for everyone are often meant to push that worst-case-scenario line a little higher.

And if everyone’s doing just what they’re supposed to, we’ll get such good, clean numbers, and isn’t that worth a few thousand more dollars?

I was talking with a friend recently, a teacher at an urban school on the East Coast. He had been called to task by his principal for splitting his kids into groups to offer differentiated math instruction based on students’ needs. “But,” the principal said, “did the pacing guide say to differentiate? You need to trust the system.”

I understand the desire to find out if a curriculum “works.” But I don’t trust anyone who can say “trust the system” without vomiting. Not when the system is so much worse than anything teachers would put together.

Last year, my old district implemented Reading Plus, an online reading program that forces students to read at a pace determined by their scores. The trainers promised, literally promised us, that there wasn’t a single reading selection anywhere in the program that could be considered offensive to anyone. God knows I never learned anything from a book that made me feel uncomfortable!

Oh, and students were supposed to use this program — forced-paced reading of benign material followed by multiple-choice questions and more forced-pace reading — for 90 minutes a week. We heard a lot about fidelity when the program did almost nothing for students (and, I believe quite strongly, did far worse than encouraging independent reading of high-interest books for 90 minutes a week would have done).

At the end of that year, I was handed copies of next year’s great adventure in fidelity. I’m not in that district any longer, but the whole district was all switching over to SpringBoard, another curriculum, in language arts classes. On came the emails about implementing with fidelity and getting everyone on the same page. We were promised flexibility, you know, so long as we also stuck to the pacing guide of the workbook.

I gave it a look, I did, because only idiots turn down potential tools. But man, it seemed custom-built to keep thinking — especially any creative, critical thought from either students or teachers — to a bare minimum.

I just got an email from two students from last year. They said hi, told me they missed creative writing class, and said they hated SpringBoard, the “evil twin of Reading Plus.”

That district ran out of money and had to cut teachers (including me) at the end of the year. But if they hadn’t, I don’t think I would have lasted long if forced to teach from a pacing guide. I’m a good teacher. Good teachers love to be challenged and supported. They take feedback well, but man do we hate mandates for stuff we know isn’t best for the kids in our room.

Because, from inside a classroom full of dynamic, chaotic brilliance;

from a classroom where that kid just shared that thing that broke all of our hearts;

from a classroom where that other kid figured out that idea they’ve been working on for weeks;

from that classroom where that other kid, who doesn’t know enough of the language, hides how hard he works to keep up and still misses things;

and from that classroom where one kid isn’t sure if they trust you yet, and that other kid trusts you too much, too easily, because their bar had been set too low after years of teachers that didn’t care enough;

from inside that classroom, it’s impossible to trust that anyone else has a better idea than I do about what my students need to do for our next 50 minutes.

Tom Rademacher is a teacher living in Minneapolis who was named Minnesota’s Teacher of the Year in 2014. His book, “It Won’t Be Easy: An Exceedingly Honest (and Slightly Unprofessional) Love Letter to Teaching,” was published in April. He can be found on Twitter @mrtomrad and writes on, where this post first appeared.

union power

Gutting Wisconsin teachers unions hurt students, study finds

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Michael Vadon
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker in 2015.

The high-profile fight to limit union power was replete with drama — including a recall election and state legislators fleeing to neighboring states.

In the 2011 battle in Wisconsin, Republican Gov. Scott Walker ultimately came out the victor. The controversial law passed, Walker won the recall, and the Democratic-aligned unions have lost much of their power.

But new research points to other losers in the fight: students in the state’s already struggling schools.

The first study to assess how Wisconsin’s high-profile weakening of unions, particularly teachers unions, affected students finds that it led to a substantial decline in test scores.

The findings come as the U.S. Supreme Court is set to hear arguments for a case, known as Janus, that could dramatically scale back union power across the country — essentially taking aspects of the Wisconsin model national. And they give credence to concerns from unions and their defenders that weakening teachers bargaining power would ultimately make schools worse, not better.

A report from the left-leaning Center for American Progress released Wednesday highlights this research — and the fact that teacher pay and average experience declined in the wake of the law, known as Act 10 — to argue that weakening unions ultimately harm schools.

“Those concerned about the quality of public education — and of all public services — should understand that Wisconsin’s Act 10 and associated budget cuts have not had the positive impact on education that its proponents claimed it would,” the CAP report argues.

Still, the research, which has not been formally peer-reviewed, only assesses the short-term impact of Wisconsin’s law. It adds to a complicated set of research findings on unions that doesn’t render a clear verdict.

Short-term effect in Wisconsin is negative, especially for low-achieving schools

The new research looks at the effects of Wisconsin Act 10, which became law in 2011 and severely limited the scope of collective bargaining and allowed members to opt of unions.

The paper’s author, Jason Baron, took advantage of what was essentially a natural experiment set up by the law. Act 10 did not affect all school districts at once — a handful of school districts were allowed to maintain union rules until their existing contract expired up to two years later. That helped isolate the immediate impact of the law.

Baron found that weakening unions led to declines in test scores, particularly in math and science. The effects were fairly large, comparable to sharply increasing class sizes. And the harm was not evenly distributed: Schools that started out furthest behind were hurt the most, while higher achieving schools saw no impact.

Other research may help explain why.

The law led to big cuts in teacher compensation, particularly for veteran teachers and especially in health insurance and retirement benefits, according to one paper. There was also a spike in teacher retirement immediately following the law’s passage.

As compensation drops, it may become harder for district and teachers to recruit and keep teachers. An increase in retirement also reduces teacher experience, which has been linked to effectiveness.

Another study found that some Wisconsin districts moved from a single salary schedule to a performance-based pay system after Act 10’s passage. Those performance pay systems were more likely to be adopted by higher-achieving districts, potentially allowing them to lure effective teachers away from struggling schools.

“Following Act 10, high-performing schools filled vacancies from teacher retirements by poaching high-quality teachers from low-performing schools through attractive compensation schemes,” the paper concludes. So while those retirements might have hit all districts equally, high-performing districts were better able to make up the difference — at the expense of low-performing schools.

There is one study that complicates the narrative in Wisconsin. As retirements spiked, it found that academic achievement actually increased in the grades that teachers left. It’s not clear what explains this.

The larger question of how teachers unions affect learning remains up for debate

A number of other recent studies have examined the relationship between teachers unions and student outcomes outside of Wisconsin. The results aren’t consistent, but the trend has been more positive for unions of late. A caveat: Some of these studies have not been published in peer-reviewed academic journals.

  • On recent efforts to weaken unions: Research in Tennessee found that it led to a drop in teacher pay, but had no effect on student test scores. But a study of four states, including Wisconsin, that recently weakened unions found evidence of reduced teacher quality as a result.
  • On what happens when charter schools unionize: Two studies in California came to differing conclusions. One found that when charters unionize, student test scores go up, but the other showed no impact.
  • On the initial rise of collective bargaining: Another paper finds that students who went to schools where districts negotiated with unions earned less money and were more likely to be unemployed as adults. But this study looks at a fairly old data set — examining those who attended schools between 1965 and 1992.

Meanwhile, it’s not clear if any of this research is likely to influence the Supreme Court, as it considers the Janus case that could make life more difficult for unions. Last month, Chief Justice John Roberts called empirical studies on political gerrymandering “sociological gobbledygook.”