Report: For Memphians, ASD’s sullied image rooted in city’s racial history

PHOTO: Jim Webber/Commercial Appeal
Caldwell-Guthrie Elementary School student Jonisha Simms (center) listens as parents and members of the school's neighborhood advisory council protest in December in front of the Shelby County Schools' administration building over the charter matching process established by the Achievement School District.

The Achievement School District has learned that justifying controversial school turnaround tactics with ambitious promises about student test scores in Memphis has done little to endear the state-run district to a community with a highly charged racial history, a new report says.

And the resulting negative perception has added yet another barrier to the ASD’s goal of turning around the state’s lowest performing schools, most of which are in Memphis, say researchers charged with providing an impartial assessment of the district’s work.

In a report released Monday, researchers said the ASD’s intense focus on improving student outcomes has come at the expense of effectively engaging the Memphis community and has failed to recognize the city’s unique racial history, including segregation, desegregation, white flight and the recent secession of six municipalities from Shelby County Schools.

“There is little doubt that many schools in Memphis are in dire need of improvement; but there is also little doubt that a long history of racial discrimination, violence, and a ‘by any means necessary’ effort to keep the suburban and city schools separate has provided Memphians with ample reasons to question the intentions of outsiders promising improvement,” said the report by the Tennessee Consortium on Research, Evaluation and Development, a research and policy center housed at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College of Education.

Created in 2010 as part of Tennessee’s Race to the Top plan, the ASD has authority under state law to wrest the worst schools from local district control and implement intensive turnaround strategies. It now oversees 29 schools, mostly in Memphis and formerly run by the local school district, and has assigned the majority to charter networks to operate.

The report says the culture of Memphis and structure of the state-run ASD collide in an unprecedented way in American education, raising concerns about power, financial profit and paternalism from much of the community that the district aims to serve — and making the ASD’s task of turning around neighborhood schools a formidable one.

"This is a really tough environment to make this work, which doesn’t mean it’s not possible, and that it’s not worth trying."Joshua Glazer, researcher

“Unlike most charter schools, it is not a voluntary option that exists alongside traditional schools, and unlike the New Orleans Recovery School District it has not replaced the existing district. Rather, the ASD must coexist in a complex, interdependent relationship with a local system whose ties to the community entail a complex mix of historical, social, and economic factors,” write authors Joshua Glazer and Cori Egan.

In an interview with Chalkbeat, Glazer emphasized that the ASD’s work is valuable — but challenging.

“This is a really tough environment to make this work, which doesn’t mean it’s not possible, and that it’s not worth trying,” Glazer said. “But they’re redefining local in a country that gets really worked up about local control. And they’re promising results that are really hard to deliver. And they’re doing it in this place with a deep, deep history of division.”

ASD Superintendent Malika Anderson agreed with the report’s conclusion that a broader community coalition is critical to the long-term sustainability of school turnaround work.

“Each year we have sought feedback on our engagement efforts and made improvements, which this report acknowledges and makes crystal clear,” she said. “The report itself demonstrates (the) close partnership between the ASD and researchers and an effort to learn and get better.”

The report says the ASD’s unified pursuit of an ambitious learning agenda, as well as its newest structure designed to give parents greater voice through its neighborhood advisory councils, have not generally worked and even have contributed to a perception of a system aimed at hostile school takeovers to benefit private interests. “It is remarkable how diametrically opposed the perspectives of ASD detractors are from those of supporters,” the report says.

The report, called The Tennessee Achievement School District: Race, History, and the Dilemma of Public Engagement, was funded by the Walton Family Foundation and Spencer Foundation, and was commissioned by the Tennessee Department of Education.

The report is the second in the last few months to highlight challenges the ASD faces. In December, Vanderbilt released a study showing that the ASD has had less of a positive impact on student test scores than have Innovation Zones, or “iZones,” run by local districts.

Last year, the same team of researchers lauded the ASD’s unified sense of mission shared with its charter school operators but cautioned that their focus on testing might cause leaders to lose sight of nuances that cannot be measured by tests — a warning they reiterate in this year’s report.

Here are some takeaways by researchers in this week’s report:

The ASD sought to redefine “local education” — but has yet to convince most Memphians.

The state-run district aimed to remove school boards and bureaucracy from the school improvement equation and instead focus on individual schools. But some community members have resented the loss of democratic input.

Detractors also have resented the presumption that Memphis can “be fixed” by outsiders and and are indignant at the implication that students will be better served by young (and often white) college graduates than by experienced local teachers (who are often black.)

"(The iZone) didn’t have to do a whole lot of professional development on cultures."Tomeka Hart, former school board member

Tomeka Hart, a former Memphis City Schools board member, told researchers that ASD leaders were at a disadvantage from the outset. “The people in the iZone have been here, they know this community. They didn’t have to do a whole lot of professional development on cultures,” said Hart, who was involved in creating the ASD as a member of the state’s Race to the Top team.

Over the years, the ASD has tried to allay concerns about lack of community input by overhauling their “matching” process, in which they select which low-performing schools will join their district and be matched with a charter operator. But their latest attempt — which included considerably more community members in the process — did not achieve its goals, the report said.

“Viewed from the perspective of the ASD, the (neighborhood advisory councils) proved unwieldy and unpredictable. … Moreover, accusations questioning the integrity and legitimacy of the process, depicted in the local press, seemed to generate additional controversy and resentment,” the report said. “In short, the plan (…) to defuse community backlash has yet to materialize.”

Community reaction to the ASD is inextricably tied to Memphis’ racial history.

Though disagreement on any major change in a city’s educational system is expected, researchers stressed “it would be a mistake to dismiss local concerns about the ASD as just another example of the tug and pull of American education politics.”

From desegregation in the 1950s and ’60s to busing students and white flight in the 1970s, the researchers traced a history of black students in Memphis City Schools being siphoned from the rest of the school populace. The heated conversations around the recent de-merger of six municipalities also had hints of racially charged motivations, researchers said.

The ASD’s takeover of schools in Shelby County with little parent involvement and an influx of young, white teachers “has been as much symbolic as practical,” feeding racial tension, the report said.

“To get buy-in from the community, they took some of the school leaders that were in that particular community in those schools and leveraged them as part of ASD’s ground staff. These were black faces, black voices, and black leaders, which was a very strategic move,” said LaShundra Richmond, deputy director of the Tennessee Black Alliance for Educational Options, who worked with the ASD to build community support. “But,” she told researchers, “there wasn’t any true partnership. The conversations and relationships didn’t continue. They lost the momentum and the trust that they had built.”

There’s also mistrust created by how the ASD has impacted Shelby County Schools.

Several critics noted the ASD’s adverse financial implications for Memphis’ local district, which already is under financial strain.

“Other community members expressed skepticism about the agenda behind the philanthropic investments that have played a key role in establishing and supporting the ASD,” the report said. “They suspect that the real purpose is to discredit the local system and to promote charter schools.’

But officials with Shelby County Schools agree that the ASD has improved public education in Memphis.

“Many people in Memphis view the iZone and the ASD as competing programs that vie for schools and bragging rights,” Glazer and Egan write.

Sharon Griffin, regional director of Shelby County Schools’ iZone school turnaround initiative, told researchers that “the ASD has caused us to really look in proactive ways how to better support schools. So, thank you for the pressure, because it’s making us take a hard look at what we thought we were doing right,” she said. 

The ASD created “a double-edged” sword by publicly focusing on test scores above all else — and not showing as dramatic results as the public expected.  

Because the ASD focused so much on how it would raise test scores, its failure to make a significant positive impact on scores, as described in the recent Vanderbilt study on school turnaround efforts in Tennessee, illegitimized the district in the eyes of the public. By only publicly focusing on one measure, district officials effectively put all of their eggs in one basket (although the ASD’s framework also tries to address related issues such as attendance and discipline.)

“Local districts are also under pressure to improve, but their legitimacy is grounded in far more than test scores,” according to the report.

ASD officials recognize the pitfall on their student outcome focus. “I think that with the ASD the perception in the community may be that we’ve over-promised what we can do in terms of the impact on student outcomes,” an ASD staff member told researchers. “I think there is this narrative now that the ASD said it was going to come in and transform these schools—that’s really not happening.”

The ASD’s “unambiguous line of authority and clear mission have enabled it to focus on a remarkably coherent set of goals.” But that’s come at a steep price: an adversarial relationship with the community it hopes to serve.

By avoiding the establishment of a school board or the bureaucracy of most urban school districts, the ASD has streamlined decision making, but to the detriment of community trust. The lack of local political institutions has caused many Memphians to believe their schools are being taken over by outside — not local — forces, and that the ASD is benefiting private interests, not the public’s.The ASD’s recent attempts to include the community last fall via neighborhood advisory councils did little to allay community members fears of outside meddling, and might even have exacerbated them.

Despite the challenges, the ASD will remain part of the state’s educational landscape.

“The immediate survival of the ASD does not appear to be threatened by these dynamics,” according to the report. “The ASD is enshrined in state law, and the governor and many members of the state legislature see it as an important component of the state’s education strategy.” Indeed, of 22 bills aimed at curtailing the ASD during last year’s legislative session, all but two were tabled. This year, bills to limit or abolish the ASD have been blocked before being even debated.

Memphis reporter Laura Faith Kebede contributed to this report.


Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include an expanded response from the ASD, with additional details and context throughout.

Top 10

From forest preschools to a secret apology, here are Chalkbeat Colorado’s must-read stories of 2018

PHOTO: Ann Schimke/Chalkbeat
Megan Patterson works with children to make a dam in a creek during a recent "forest school" class.

We spend a lot of time at Chalkbeat chasing the news to keep our readers informed about controversial policy changes, fast-moving debates, and late-breaking decisions.

But we also relish the opportunity to dig deep into issues affecting students and families, shine light on innovative ideas, and hear from dedicated educators making a difference. With that in mind, we’ve gathered 10 of our best stories from 2018.

These stories don’t necessarily chronicle the biggest education issues of 2018, from teacher walkouts to unprecedented state interventions. But they are stories we think are important and insightful, and that we enjoyed reporting and writing. We hope you enjoy reading them.

No walls: Forest preschools let kids run free, but can they change to reach diverse families?

One day this past summer, about a dozen children frolicked by a Jefferson County creek — making pretend tea in small metal buckets, and building dams with sticks and mud.

They were students at Worldmind Nature Immersion School, where children spend all their time outside. So-called forest preschools like Worldmind are beloved by many families but face significant regulatory and logistical barriers in expanding their footprint nationwide. Here in Colorado, a pilot program could lead a new kind of child care license designed for them.

And being licensed could help the schools confront another problem: a lack of diversity among their students. Read more.

Colorado was never ranked 46th for teacher pay. Does this change the debate?

It was an oft-cited statistic: that Colorado, despite its booming economy, ranked 46th in the nation for teacher pay. The eye-popping number found its way onto social media posts and signs at massive teacher rallies last spring. News outlets latched on to it, too.

But it was wrong. Colorado was actually ranked 30th in the nation.

Our story breaks down how the mistake happened (hint: a new data system, an unrevised report) — and how groups with different agendas seized on the snafu to score points. Read more.

This is the letter of apology that Adams 14 leaders never sent

The Adams 14 district in Commerce City is arguably the most troubled and low-performing in Colorado. Just last month, state officials directed Adams 14 to hire an external manager to oversee the district’s operations for at least the next four years.

Back in September, Adams 14 officials considered taking a rare step: saying sorry to the community. But an apology letter was never signed nor sent out.

Chalkbeat obtained a copy of the letter, which makes mention of “various and conflicting priorities, coupled with constant turnover and organizational disarray.” Read more.

Rising test scores and dwindling trust: Denver’s Tom Boasberg leaves a complicated legacy

Colorado’s largest school district experienced a big change this year when longtime leader Tom Boasberg announced he would step down after nearly 10 years in Denver Public Schools.

Because of his school improvement strategies — some of which were controversial and heightened tensions with the community — the district that the new superintendent, Susana Cordova, will inherit in January is vastly different than it was a decade ago.

One tangible difference: Schools that once served as anchors of the community but struggled academically have been closed or replaced. That disappearance was on display on one of Boasberg’s last days, when he held his cell phone close to his mouth and enunciated each word so his GPS would understand his direction: “Montbello High School.” Read more.

Parents in one Aurora high school are visiting classrooms and giving teachers feedback

Like many schools in Colorado, Aurora’s Rangeview High School has a test score gap between white and black students. But the assistant principal there came up with a unique way to try to address it: by inviting black parents to visit classrooms and observe how students are — or are not — engaging with the teacher’s lesson, and then provide suggestions for improvement.

“We give true and honest feedback,” said one parent involved, “if they looked or appeared comfortable, how they interacted with the environment, the temperature of the room.”

Although the assistant principal considers the African American Parent Committee an experiment, she said it’s generating uncomfortable but necessary conversations. Read more.

How education reform became a wedge issue among Colorado Democrats this election year

For years, more moderate Democrats, often working in unison with like-minded Republicans, championed education reform efforts ranging from school choice to holding educators accountable for student performance.

But partly because of backlash against President Donald Trump and his education secretary, those strategies no longer fly with many Democrats — especially left-leaning Democrats who see them as undercutting public education and devaluing the work of teachers.

That sentiment was palpable in Colorado’s Democratic gubernatorial primary, and could shape the next legislative session, which starts in January. “Education is the issue that really stands to divide the left in a very substantial way,” one observer said. Read more.

How a Colorado school district turned things around at 10,000 feet above sea level

School improvement efforts look a little different high in the Rocky Mountains. While many of the strategies used by the 1,000-student Lake County school district are familiar to urban settings, they’ve been retrofitted to meet the needs of a district that’s 100 miles west of Denver.

For example, instead of firing teachers and principals who weren’t accelerating student learning fast enough, the district adopted a new curriculum and gave its teachers lots of training.

“The belief that the people are the problem is wrong,” the superintendent said. “Our teachers are professionals, and we believe in them. We’re proving that there is a framework or a pathway for rural schools to improve that’s about building capacity within your own community.” Read more.

7 things to know about how Colorado schools punish their youngest students

After state lawmakers rejected a bill to limit the use of suspensions in the earliest grades, Chalkbeat wanted to know more about the early childhood discipline landscape in Colorado. Data from the Colorado Department of Education revealed several trends.

Among them: Young black boys are suspended at disproportionate rates. Some rural school districts have the highest early childhood suspension rates in the state.

And despite nationwide debate about the impact of harsh discipline on young children and local efforts to bring the numbers down, suspensions in the early grades are actually going up. Read more.

In Denver’s gentrifying neighborhoods, some middle-class parents are avoiding the school down the block

Many neighborhoods in Denver are gentrifying, with middle-class families moving into what have historically been working-class communities. That type of demographic shift could easily lead to neighborhood schools that are more integrated by family income and race.

But that doesn’t always happen in Denver. Instead, data show that wealthier families – more often than low-income families – are using Denver Public Schools’ universal school choice process to send their kids to schools elsewhere in the city.

That’s a problem because research shows integrated schools boost test scores for students from low-income families without lowering the scores of those from wealthier ones. Denver officials want to see those benefits, but allowing parents to choose may be thwarting them. Read more.

Why this Colorado principal hand delivers birthday cards to more than 2,000 students and staff

Northglenn High School Principal Sharee Blunt is Colorado’s 2018 School Principal of the year — but perhaps even more impressive is the enormous number of birthday cards she hand delivers each year. If you’re one of those people who can barely remember your spouse’s birthday, you’ll be floored by Blunt’s annual feat.

In our interview with Blunt, part of Chalkbeat’s “How I Lead” Q&A series with distinguished school leaders, she talks about what she realized after a mother’s emotional reaction, and why she gave a teacher a pass during a lesson that went awry. Read more.

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.