Just weeks into her new job as leader of Tennessee’s school improvement district, Malika Anderson found herself on Wednesday in the same seat that her predecessor was a year ago — appearing before state lawmakers to defend the district’s work and to quash any bills that would curtail it.

Testifying before the Senate Education Committee, Anderson emphasized that it takes time to turn the trajectory of schools that have languished for decades. The Achievement School District took over its first six schools in Memphis in 2012, and its other 23 schools have been under the state’s oversight for less than three years.

“We expect that in five to seven years, we should see major improvements in our schools,” she told lawmakers.

Her comments amounted to an admission that the ASD is struggling to meet its lofty goal of moving the state’s bottom 5 percent of schools to the top quartile within five years. Its main vehicle for turnarounds is to assign low-performing schools to high-quality public charter schools and to provide the support and flexibility to make significant changes ranging from hiring and firing teachers and administrators to extending school hours.

“We want to make sure that we’re growing what works, halting what doesn’t,” Anderson said, noting that operators who don’t demonstrate growth won’t get ASD authorization to expand. “… Fundamentally, the idea [is] that through autonomy, additional resources for teachers, and a longer school day, we’re all going to get there together.”

Anderson’s appearance came only days after a bill to abolish the ASD was filed in the legislature by Rep. Antonio Parkinson, a Democrat from Memphis, and Sen. Frank Nicely, a Republican from Strawberry Fields. A similar proposal last year never was voted on in committee.

But Anderson and leaders of the Tennessee Department of Education — who say they are committed to the ASD as a key part of the state’s school improvement strategy — expect that more bills targeting the state-run district will follow due to mounting criticism.

In Memphis, where most of the ASD’s turnaround efforts are centered, the Shelby County school board called in December for a moratorium on ASD expansion until it shows consistent progress in improving student academic achievement. The board’s action came weeks after Vanderbilt University researchers released a report saying that the ASD has not made significant academic gains, while schools in Shelby County’s Innovation Zone have. Both initiatives were started at about the same time.

ASD officials have been quick to point out that schools that have been with the state-run district the longest have posted high student growth scores. However, many of the schools have seen uneven growth from year to year.

In addition, while some groups remain staunch advocates of the ASD’s work and the motivation it’s created to improve schools in Memphis under the threat of state intervention, a growing chorus of critics have accused the ASD of an unfair takeover process in announcing plans to absorb four more Memphis schools next school year.

Malika Anderson appears before members of the Senate Education Committee.
Anderson appears before the Senate Education Committee.
PHOTO CREDIT: Grace Tatter

Anderson, who replaced founding ASD superintendent Chris Barbic in January after he exited the district, said after Wednesday’s hearing that she is spending a lot of time listening to concerns and answering questions from legislators, parents, teachers and community leaders.

“The first few weeks have been intense,” she said.

But Anderson is not new to the issues. She formerly served as Barbic’s chief deputy and, when Gov. Bill Haslam tapped her to succeed Barbic, her appointment signaled the state’s confidence in the ASD’s model and its willingness to stay the course.

Most of the questions asked by lawmakers Wednesday were about funding and teacher support. Anderson was quick to smile and even laugh at times, while sharing Barbic’s fierce advocacy for the ASD.

She lauded gains in Shelby County’s iZone — now with 18 schools — and noted that the iZone has received $30 million from the state and grants during the last three years, compared to $20 million for the ASD, which now has 27 schools in Memphis and two in Nashville. That’s directly counter to a common criticism toward the ASD that it has more resources than other schools. She insisted that the Vanderbilt study doesn’t necessarily show that iZone is more successful than the ASD — just that it’s too soon to tell.

A day earlier, Anderson met with members of the legislature’s black caucus, which last month announced its support for the proposed moratorium on ASD expansion.

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“I think most people sensed her sincerity and that she cares a lot for children and she wants to see the children succeed,” said Rep. Brenda Gilmore, a Nashville Democrat and caucus chairwoman, who also frequently met with Barbic throughout his tenure.

Still, Gilmore said the ASD must demonstrate its effectiveness.

“I do think we should let the ASD have five years — that’s what they asked for,” Gilmore said. “However,  I don’t think they should expand anymore. It should be a true moratorium until they can show they can make that improvement.”