Future of Schools

Tennessee’s state-run school turnaround district poised to escape lawmakers’ intervention — again

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
The Tennessee House of Representatives is in its final week of the 2018 legislative session.

Despite blustery talk of clipping the Achievement School District’s wings this year, Tennessee’s school turnaround district appears poised to escape this legislative session unscathed, with as much support as ever among the ranks of lawmakers.

Last year, 22 bills were filed to limit or place controls on the district, which began operations in 2011 to improve Tennessee’s lowest-performing schools, most of which are in Memphis.

This year, seven bills were filed related to the state-run district, and only two appear to be still in play. Both are sponsored by Rep. Raumesh Akbari, a Memphis Democrat who managed last year to shepherd in a law that prohibits the ASD from taking over schools with high-growth test scores.

Both of Akbari’s active 2016 bills have been amended to soften the impact on the ASD.

One measure, which is headed to the House floor, originally would have prohibited the ASD from taking over a school if other schools are ranked below it. The amended bill removes references to the ASD and proposes that the state begin ranking schools according to academic performance on its priority list of lowest-performing schools.

Akbari’s second bill, which she’s scheduled to present next week in subcommittee, would require the ASD to post more information online about the charter networks that run its schools. The bill originally would have required charter operators to demonstrate certain student achievement levels before being authorized to operate another public charter school, either within the ASD or a local district.

A pragmatist, Akbari says the tougher ASD legislation will be discussed during lawmakers’ summer study sessions.

Rep. Raumesh Akbari
PHOTO: Kayleigh Skinner
Rep. Raumesh Akbari

“You have to have support … and you have to bring everyone to the table, and that takes time,” she said Thursday.

This year’s ASD-related bills ranged from a proposal to abolish the ASD to one allowing the state-run district to take over a school only if no other lower-performing school is eligible for intervention. But most have fizzled or languished in committees before being debated.

The legislative sputtering is indicative of continued support for the ASD by Gov. Bill Haslam and Education Commissioner Candice McQueen, who maintain that the state’s turnaround district is an important part of Tennessee’s multi-pronged strategy to improve low-performing schools.

It also stands in stark contrast to the angry rhetoric of last December when a significant Vanderbilt University study showed that ASD schools had shown less academic growth than other urban schools in Innovation Zones, which are turnaround programs operated by local districts. Fueling the anger were allegations that the ASD had rigged its process last fall for determining whether to proceed with interventions at low-performing Memphis schools being matched with charter operators. The confluence of events prompted Shelby County’s school board and the state legislature’s black caucus to call for a moratorium on ASD expansion until it shows consistent progress in improving student academic achievement.

No bills were filed this year to seek a moratorium, but lawmakers did file several aimed at restricting the ASD’s autonomy.

The most robust debate occurred this week in a House subcommittee when ASD supporters and critics packed a hearing room in Legislative Plaza in opposition to a bill by Rep. Bill Beck, a Nashville Democrat. The proposal would have allowed parents to halt ASD school takeovers with the signatures of 60 percent of parents at the schools in question.

Beck brought in heavy hitters — Jesse Register, former director of Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools; Sue Kessler, a principal of Hunters Lane High School in Nashville; and Mark North, an attorney — who charged that the ASD did not collaborate sufficiently with Metro Nashville when it took over a middle school last year that already had been improving on its own, which state test scores later bore out.

But they were outnumbered and overshadowed by impassioned parents who had traveled to Nashville from Memphis in support of the ASD, even though the bill in question was directed at Neely’s Bend College Prep in Beck’s district, now one of the ASD’s two schools in Nashville. Bedecked in orange T-shirts, the parents from Memphis Lift, an advocacy group started by a former ASD official and funded by a company founded by charter school supporter John Little, cheered throughout testimony from ASD Superintendent Malika Anderson and Keith Williams, a senior fellow with Tennessee’s chapter of the Black Alliance for Educational Options.

The bill ultimately was defeated on a voice vote as the debate highlighted the nuances — and sometimes inconsistencies — of some of the arguments presented.

Supporters say the ASD brings empowering choice to low-income parents. But when faced with a bill to let parents collectively choose to take back the reins of a school from the ASD, those same supporters cried foul. The ASD has only helped low-income families like their own, they argued, and its growth shouldn’t be hindered.

Historically, members of the House Education Administration & Planning subcommittee have supported “school choice” and data-backed decision-making. But when presented with data showing that the ASD opted last year to take over Neely’s Bend Middle Prep instead of lower-performing priority schools in Nashville, committee members maintained their support for the state-run district, saying it was the most effective tool for improvement.

The raucous debate likely was the last one about the ASD for this year’s legislative session, which is drawing to a close.

"We value ... the legislative process and would hate to short circuit it by predicting outcomes this early."Malika Anderson, ASD superintendent

But Anderson, who became the ASD’s chief in January, insists it’s still too early to tell, with some bills still on committee calendars and several weeks before the General Assembly adjourns. “I think that it is too early to draw any conclusions about the impact of this legislative session on the ASD,” Anderson said Thursday. “We value the meaningful, informative and mostly cooperative work that the ASD, our parents, community members and legislators are engaged in throughout the legislative process and would hate to short circuit it by predicting outcomes this early.”

Of bills that are tabled this year, many will make their way to legislative study sessions this summer, according to Rep. Bill Dunn, a Knoxville Republican who is the lead sponsor of an ASD-related bill drafted by Rep. Antonio Parkinson of Memphis. That bill would limit ASD eligibility to the state’s bottom 2.5 percent of schools instead of the bottom 5 percent.

“The bill was filed more to have a discussion,” Dunn said. “In my view, it would be better over the summer to really take a hard look at schools and see the best way to move forward.”

the portfolio push

40 cities in 10 years: Leaked presentation offers more details on new group’s goals to spread charter (and charter-like) schools

Students enter the building on the first day of school at Denver's McGlone Academy on Wednesday, August 15, 2018. (Photo by AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post via Getty Images)

The new organization aiming to spread a mix of charter schools, school autonomy, and unified enrollment across the country wants to reach 5 percent of low-income students in the U.S. within five years, according to a presentation obtained by Chalkbeat.

The City Fund, whose formation was announced late last month, has already amassed over $200 million and a well-connected staff, making it poised to influence education policy in cities across the country.

The full presentation, used a few months ago to pitch potential funders, offers the most detailed available blueprint of the group’s goals and strategies, which include expanding charter schools or charter-like alternatives. Known as the “portfolio model,” it’s a controversial approach that has faced skepticism from both critics and supporters of charter schools. The academic success of the approach remains hotly debated.

“Our goal is to make the model normal,” the presentation says. “After enough adoption we believe the model will transition from being a radical idea to a standard policy intervention.”

Neerav Kingsland, the managing partner of The City Fund, declined to comment on most details in the document or offer additional information about the group’s funders, but said “nothing dramatic” has changed since the presentation was used.

The City Fund’s pitch: Spreading the Denver, D.C., and New Orleans model

The presentation opens by declaring that “very little works in education reform,” citing an analysis of nearly 200 randomized trials in education.

The group contrasts that to more recent results in Denver, Washington D.C., and New Orleans, three cities that “have broken through with dramatic and sustained gains for all children,” it says. The presentation also cites Indianapolis, Camden, Memphis, Baton Rouge, and Newark as already adopting strategies it prefers. Texas, too, is promoting those ideas through its state education department.

“Given this momentum, we believe that in the next five years we can scale the model to reach ~2% of all United States students and ~5% of low-income students,” it reads.

The City Fund’s goal is for cities to have a large charter sector, “often scaling to serve 30-50% of students,” the presentation reads. Those schools, it argues, creates a competitive environment, one pillar of The City Fund’s model. They believe this will help “all boats rise.”

The second pillar is accountability, or “the expansion of the city’s best schools and the replacement of its worst, regardless of type,” based on a common performance rubric. And the third is equity, which it connects to a central choice system for a city’s district and charter schools.

One thing that is explicitly not part of the approach: more public money for schools. “None of these structural reforms cost public dollars,” the presentation reads. “Cities can increase the efficiency and equality of the system within existing budgets — with philanthropy supporting the transition costs.”

The group has an aggressive timeline for convincing cities to move in this direction, according to the presentation.

Between 2018 and 2021, it hopes to have success in at least 20 cities, affecting around one million students. Specifically, their goal is for 10 cities to have fully adopted the model, and 10 more to be making progress.

From 2022 on, the group hopes to influence “every major city in America,” growing by a couple of cities each year, the presentation says. (“If I had to rewrite that slide I would say, ‘if evidence and demand follows,’” Kingsland said in an interview. “We really aren’t going to expand if the evidence isn’t there.”)

In seven to 10 years, the group hopes to get to 30 to 40 cities.

How will The City Fund make that happen?

Deploying its leaders to speak and blog, convening sympathetic policymakers and advocates, and partnering with groups, including low-income parent organizers, are some of the strategies the presentation lists.

Money will also be a key source of influence.

City Fund says initial investments will be around  $15 to 25 million for the first three years in each one of a carefully selected group of cities poised to fully adopt the model. Most of that money will flow to local groups, where City Fund leaders will sit on the boards of directors. After seven to 10 years, The City Fund plans to exit a city, allowing the group to spread to new ones and “enabling national scaling.”

The group will have substantial resources to draw from. As Chalkbeat previously reported, the presentation says the group has raised over $200 million and that its first investors are Laura and John Arnold and Reed Hastings.

What we still don’t know: where it will go, who else is funding it, and whether it will work

The presentation leaves some crucial questions unanswered.

For instance, who else is funding the effort besides the Arnolds and Hastings? Kingsland wouldn’t say, but The City Fund recently netted a $10 million grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. (Gates is also a funder of Chalkbeat.) A spokesperson for the foundation said the grant was for four years and intended to “support both high-quality charter schools in Oakland and school leaders in” the district.

A spokesperson for the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation said that it also would be funding The City Fund, though declined to say how much money had been awarded, saying final details were still being worked out.

Spokespeople for the Walton Family Foundation and Bezos Family Foundation both said their groups have not supported The City Fund.

Another question: What cities does the group plan to spend its money on? The presentation doesn’t say, though some other signs have emerged.

The Gates Foundation grant is specifically targeted for Oakland, which recently adopted a plan approximating the portfolio model. City Fund staff members already sit on the boards of local organizations with similar agendas in Baton Rouge, Memphis, San Antonio, and Washington D.C, though it’s not clear if that means those will be target cities.

The Arnold Foundation, whose education philanthropy is now routed through The City Fund, has previously invested in portfolio efforts in Atlanta, Camden, D.C., Indianapolis, New Orleans, and Philadelphia.

As expected for a group raising money, the presentation paints an optimistic picture of the success of its strategy, pointing to research showing substantial academic gains in New Orleans after that district’s structural overhaul post-Hurricane Katrina. The presentation doesn’t include the fact that those gains also came with a sustained infusion of both public and philanthropic dollars — nearly $1,500 per pupil compared to similar districts in the state. That’s striking, since the presentation suggests that no new public money is necessary to realize such improvements elsewhere.

The pitch also doesn’t mention studies of the approach that have found more tepid results, like a recent one on Tennessee’s Achievement School District, the state-run turnaround district previously led by one of the City Fund partners, Chris Barbic. (Kingsland has acknowledged those results in a blog post, saying “I thought the ASD charter effort would work. … Five years later, the results paint a different picture than my predictions.”)

And in claiming that little in education reform has been successful, the group doesn’t refer to  research on school integration and increased school funding, which have generally found positive effects.

(Kingsland argued the effects of more school spending are small, pointing to one widely-cited national study, and said he supports school integration but questions “its scalability.”)

Doug Harris, a Tulane economist whose work showing test score gains in New Orleans was cited in the City Fund presentation, said he didn’t believe the additional money was the main driver of those improvements. But he is skeptical the New Orleans approach could be replicated without the extra resources.

“We don’t know how much money mattered, but given how much money seems to matter in other places, there’s not a lot of evidence to suggest we can do this on the cheap and get these kinds of results,” he said.

Want to learn more about the portfolio model? We’ve written about the ideas and people behind the approach; the research on the model; and efforts to put it in place in Kansas City and Oakland

Are Children Learning

Chicago schools to delay plan for tackling the gifted gap

PHOTO: Frederick Bass

Chicago Public Schools wants to delay for a year a plan to make gifted services available to more children outside of selected enrollment, or test-in, schools.

On Wednesday morning, the Chicago Board of Education is holding a hearing on a request for a one-year extension to comply with a new Illinois law that compels school districts to better accommodate gifted children. The public can sign in to comment beginning at 8:30 a.m. in advance of the 9:30 a.m. meeting.

The law requires Illinois districts to identify students who are gifted using “multiple, reliable and valid indicators” and put programs in place to challenge them. That could include offering the chance to start kindergarten and first grade early, accelerating a child in a single subject, or having the child skip a whole grade.

But those steps are a big undertaking, one that Chicago wants to delay for a year. Emily Bolton, a spokeswoman for CPS, said the district is seeking the extension to “allow us more time to thoughtfully develop and execute” a plan to comply with the scope of the new law.

The law, which went into effect July 1, also stresses that district approaches should be “fair and equitable”—and in Illinois, gifted services have been anything but. In the early 2000s, the state was considered a leader in gifted education. But by 2017, only 33 percent of high-poverty schools statewide offered gifted programs, lower than the national average of 69 percent.

Carolyn Welch, policy and advocacy committee co-chair of the Illinois Association for Gifted Children, says the new law is a “critical step” — especially for low-income students, who tend to be underrepresented in gifted programs if their schools offer them at all. In high-poverty public school districts like Chicago, many families don’t have the resources to pay for classes or enrichment activities outside of school. So students depend on public schools to meet their needs.

Prior to the new law, which is called the Accelerated Placement Act, about 55 percent of Illinois districts lacked policies allowing early entrance to kindergarten and first grade and 46 percent lacked policies for accelerating students in specific subjects. Only one in 10 allowed kids to skip a grade, according to a study by the Illinois Association for Gifted Children and the Untapped Potential Project.

In Chicago, students can test in to competitive academic centers, classical schools, and other gifted programs, but outside of those, program offerings are ad-hoc. Like at a lot of big urban districts, what’s available at individual schools can vary quite a bit throughout Chicago schools, said Eric Calvert, associate director of the Center for Talent Development at Northwestern University. And there are more children in Chicago than the centers can serve, with three applicants vying for every seat, he said.

Elementary gifted programs also don’t accommodate students who might be gifted at one subject but average at another. And when you look at who attends those programs, they tend to be on the higher end of the socio-economic scale and disproportionately white. Some of that, Calvert added, “is a product of the fact that resources make a difference in achievement.”

Calvert said it’s important to have ways to identify and accommodate gifted students at neighborhood schools because it’s a way that, without new resources or special programs, “schools can provide something to students who need it.”

“If you’re a second grader ready for third grade content that has an option the school can provide, that doesn’t cost any more than serving that student as a second grader.”

A 2016 study titled the Untapped Potential Report examined the gifted gap in Chicago and found that white students, who make up 10 percent of the district, occupied one in four gifted seats. Hispanic students, meanwhile, were particularly underrepresented, comprising 46 percent of total CPS students, but only 25 percent of seats in elementary gifted programs.

Low-income students, more than 82 percent of the district, only comprised 60 percent of gifted seats, according to the report.

The risk of an approach like Chicago’s, which leans on a small number of gifted and classical programs, is that a lot of kids slip through the cracks “and lose their potential,” Calvert said. Then high-ability students who are chronically underchallenged and see school as a waste of time are more likely to underachieve and even drop out.  

Students who are supported in elementary school are more likely to track into advanced coursework in high school, which increases their chances of graduating from college, enjoying more social mobility, and having children who graduate college as well, Calvert said. He pointed out that the largest ethnic group at CPS is Latino students, but that a disproportionately low number of those students are at advanced high schools, and that they matriculate into college at lower rates than their white and Asian peers.

About 65 percent of students at CPS are enrolled at Level 1-plus or Level 1-rated schools, but the population in those schools don’t reflect the school districts’ racial mix, according to a draft of the school district’s Annual Regional Analysis. Only 45 percent of black students and 72 percent of Latino students are in those top-rated seats, compared with 91 percent of white students.