Takeover pause

Citing TNReady transition, Tennessee’s school turnaround district to halt takeovers for one year

PHOTO: Grace Tatter
Malika Anderson was named superintendent of the Achievement School District in 2015 at the State Capitol, where she was flanked by Education Commissioner Candice McQueen and Gov. Bill Haslam.

The Achievement School District will not seek to take over more low-performing schools in the 2017-18 school year because of the state’s transition to its new K-12 assessment this year, district leaders said Friday.

The decision is consistent with allowances being shown by the State Department of Education over student grades and teacher evaluations due to the failed rollout of TNReady, according to the announcement by Tennessee’s school turnaround district.

“Extending flexibility to priority schools during this transition mirrors the flexibility we have offered to teachers and students,” Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said in a statement released through the ASD. “We remain committed to improving all schools as well as the work being done by the ASD …”

Under the new timetable, the next time the ASD will authorize new school charter operators will be the spring of 2017 for potential charter conversions in 2018-19. However, decisions on new school starts for previously authorized operators, grade expansion and non-academic school actions will continue and be based on operator and school performance.

“This is not a moratorium, it is a hold harmless year based on a new assessment,” the statement says.

Several state lawmakers from Memphis and school boards in both Memphis and Nashville have called for a one-year moratorium on ASD growth. The ASD operates 27 turnaround schools in Memphis and two in Nashville and will add four more in Memphis next school year.

A major issue behind calls for a moratorium was the ASD’s lackluster performance thus far in turning around struggling schools, but ASD leaders emphasized that their decision is based on the state’s transition to TNReady. That rollout has been bumpy, with network outages that prompted the state to scrap its new online assessment, and numerous delays in delivering paper-based tests to local districts.

The district also hinted toward its next destination in turning around low-performing schools: Chattanooga. Five schools were in the bottom 5 percent of schools statewide in 2014.

“In the meantime, the department and the ASD will work closely with Shelby County Schools, Metro Nashville Public Schools, and other districts with Priority schools, including Hamilton County, to continue to support and define the path forward in anticipation of a new Priority list being run in 2017,” the statement says.

Local school officials in Memphis were not immediately available to comment, but leaders in Nashville welcomed the news.

“It’s a positive first step toward a series of course corrections that need to happen with the Achievement School District. I’m glad the state is listening,” said Will Pinkston, a Nashville board member who sponsored the resolution for an ASD moratorium, approved just this week by Nashville’s school board.

Chris Henson, interim director for Nashville’s district, added that “given that this is a new test, it is appropriate to give districts the leeway to decide how to use the results for their own accountability purposes. Knowing that the TDOE will also do the same as it applies to the Achievement School District is encouraging.”

State lawmakers and education advocates in Memphis also weighed in.

“The fact that the ASD/DOE is listening and holding their 17-18 school year as a ‘hold harmless’ year is a positive step in the right direction,” said Rep. Antonio Parkinson of Memphis, another frequent ASD critic.

The Black Alliance for Educational Options, an advocacy group that has supported the ASD’s efforts and assisted in parent engagement at Memphis schools considered for takeover, praised the ASD’s decision.

“Students need adequate time to prepare for and adjust to the new TNReady assessment, and this decision will allow for that,” said Mendell Grinter, the alliance’s state director.

"Extending flexibility to priority schools during this transition mirrors the flexibility we have offered to teachers and students."Candice McQueen, Tennessee education commissioner

The ASD launched in 2011 and opened its first schools in 2012. It primary turnaround model is to take control of struggling schools and assign them to high-quality charter networks with the goal of turning them around within five years. Superintendent Malika Anderson has acknowledged that the goal was overly ambitious and likely will not be met. The recently released state list of schools in danger of appearing on the 2017 priority list — schools that are academically in the bottom 5 percent — shows that all but one of the six schools in the ASD’s first cohort are still in the bottom 5 percent.

The district took a major hit last December when researchers at Vanderbilt University released a study suggesting that Memphis’ low-performing schools would be better off in Shelby County Schools’ Innovation Zone, a turnaround initiative operated by the local district.

Pinkston said the state should adopt the model used by the iZone, whose test scores have outpaced the ASD cumulatively. “What Shelby County is doing works,” he said.

IZone schools remain within the local district but, like charters, have the autonomy to hire and fire staff, overhaul their curriculums, give their teachers bonuses, and add time to the school day. Its leaders have said that constant collaboration is another key to its success thus far.

The ASD’s statement said the district will focus for now on its existing schools: “While in 2017-18 the ASD will not convert additional schools, we will continue to maintain the urgency, momentum, and attention on priority schools that has been so critical to the accelerated student growth we have seen,” the statement said. “… Our students cannot afford for us to slow down.”

 

Corrections & Clarifications: April 15, 2016: A previous version did not include that the ASD may choose to initiate new school starts for previously approved charter operators and grade expansion. That has been added. The story also clarifies that the ASD’s decision is based on the state’s transition to TNReady, not problems associated with the assessment’s rollout.

appeals

Will charter schools rebuffed in Chicago find a savior in the state? Why the outlook is iffy.

At Moving Everest Charter School one recent morning, first-grade teacher Alexis Collins gestured proudly at her room of 15 students, all wearing oversize headphones and quietly peering at laptop screens loading a math program that would launch them into elementary computer programming.

“We start them off with coding, so by the time they are in eighth grade, they’ll know what a person with an associate’s degree would know,” Collins said.

The school is so confident that its controversial personalized learning program will help raise up children from struggling neighborhoods that its directors proposed opening a second campus.

But the Chicago school board, perhaps recognizing the shifting political tide, denied the proposal from Everest and two others seeking to open new charters, despite lobbying by supportive parents.

Now Moving Everest is pinning its hopes on an appeal to the Illinois State Charter Commission.

Another charter applicant also plans to appeal: Kemet Leadership Academy, which proposed a middle school for at-risk boys in Englewood. So do the operators of Kwame Nkrumah Academy, which the Chicago district ordered closed at the end of the school year.

Appeal plans are uncertain for two others: charter applicant Intrinsic, which sought to replicate its Level 1-plus campus with another citywide high school, and Urban Prep West, whose school was ordered closed. Neither Instrinsic nor Urban Prep West responded to requests for comment.

The state established the charter agency in 2011 to ensure quality in charter schools, and granted it the power to override local school boards’ rulings. Since then, charter school operators have regarded the state charter commission as a lifeline protecting them from hostile local school boards.

Its history with Chicago is contentious. The commission has overruled Chicago Public Schools  to approve opening two charter schools and to reopen four charters closed by the district — one of which later shut down. The state agency oversees and funds five charter schools now operating in Chicago.

Opponents chafe at the commission’s ability to override local decisions.

But circumstances have changed. The commission’s future is far from certain, meaning that charters rejected this month could have only a small window to win commission support before the administration, and possibly policies, change in Springfield.

Chicago tried to curb the commission’s authority by backing a state bill that would have stripped it of its right to reverse school district decisions. The bill passed, but Gov. Bruce Rauner vetoed it last spring, and the Illinois Senate failed to override the veto.

But incoming governor J.B. Pritzker has pledged to place a moratorium on charter school expansion. His position on the charter commission is unclear. He earlier told Chalkbeat that good charter schools are “worthy of support” but that adequate funding for district schools should come before “expanding the opportunity for people to start charters.”

Now legislators have introduced a package of bills to rein in charter schools. Among other things, they would cap charter school expansion in financially struggling districts like Chicago and bar for-profit companies from running charters.

Could Everest win approval in time? Charter operators have 30 days from a denial to file an appeal. Then the commission has 75 days to rule.

The school hasn’t yet filed an appeal. But Michael Rogers, the founder of Moving Everest, said he isn’t ready to give up on expanding his school’s mission.

He’s not deterred by Everest’s Level 2-plus rating, not a stellar rank, from Chicago Public Schools.

He said that the school offers a unique learning environment. It also provides for its students in other ways, including offering dental and eye care.

“How do we interrupt the cycle of children growing up in this neighborhood who have a challenging instructional environment?” Rogers asked, adding he will tell the commission about the importance of investing in a struggling community.

In Austin, one of the city’s most under-invested neighborhoods, the large gray-and-green buildings that house Moving Everest school and its partner after-school “Christ-centered” program, By The Hand, stand our starkly against the nearby empty lots, run-down strip malls, and train tracks.

“We are thankful that the charter commission lives on, at least for the time being,” Rogers said. “We do believe that we have a strong school academically, financially. Our model is such that the community has spoken very loudly about or school.”

Indiana A-F grades

Indiana looks to ditch two A-F grades. Here’s how the feds would measure schools instead

PHOTO: Christina Veiga/Chalkbeat
First-grade students on the first day of school this year.

Confused by your school’s two letter grades? Some Indiana education officials are trying to change that.

Officials are proposing that the state scrap one of its two school A-F grades, a move they say will clarify for educators, parents, and community members how a school has performed.

“It was causing a lot of confusion,” said state Superintendent Jennifer McCormick. “I think schools will be pleased.”

The Indiana Department of Education will instead ask federal officials to approve an updated school rating system under its plan to comply with the Every Student Succeeds Act, which relies on four categories — exceeds, meets, approaches, and does not meet expectations — rather than letter grades. The state, however, will continue to assign A-F grades to schools as part of its own grading system.

Read: Indiana has a curious plan to sidestep federal rules — give schools two A-F grades next year.

The changes to the grades represent an attempt to get past the limited scope grades offer, McCormick said. It’s also an acknowledgement that Indiana lawmakers and state board of education members have opposed combining the state and federal grading model into one, despite urging from McCormick and other educators and experts.

“I over-assumed and underestimated the desire to take ESSA as seriously as we were,” McCormick said. “Our goal was not to have two (school grades), but we can control that obviously easier on our end.”

While the revisions would mean that schools across the state would get one grade, there would still be two yardsticks against which their test scores and other achievement data will be measured — one that meets federal law, and one that meets state law. The two ratings have different consequences for schools. The state grade would determine where a school falls on the timeline for state intervention, and the federal rating would count under rules for identifying struggling schools and those that govern Title I funding.

An education department spokesman said the state is submitting its revisions to the federal government in January and hopes to hear a response by April or May. If approved, the new model would be used for 2019 ratings, typically released in the fall.

In addition to removing the A-F grade labels, the federal plan would also change the components of the rating. Currently, federal grades are based on data from five areas — six for high schools, which report graduation rate — that still draw mainly from test scores. New to Indiana are factors that measure the fluency of students learning English as a new language and chronic absenteeism. Those aren’t included in state grades, but represent ESSA’s goal of being more inclusive and attempting to value other measures that aren’t test scores.

The updated version would keep most of the above factors, but remove data on course and credential completion and add a component measuring the share of students who graduate with the state’s Core 40 diploma, as well as another that focuses on test score gaps between students from different backgrounds.

Although the new ratings would still be based mostly on test scores — a requirement of federal law — they would involve more information that educators say offers a better and more fair picture of how schools are doing.

“I absolutely love it,” said Steve Baker, principal at Bluffton High School. “The letter grades have run their course — they are truly not an accurate description of what’s happening in a school.”

Baker said that unlike grades, the ratings aren’t as punitive and might not emphasize as starkly the disparities between schools in more affluent communities and those that serve more students from low-income families.

Also, different ratings could give parents more insight when choosing schools, he said. Just knowing that an “A” school is rated higher than a “B” school, without understanding what plays into those grades — which stem mainly from test scores and have been criticized for not including enough students or accounting for gaps between students from different backgrounds — isn’t going far enough, he said.

Baker said he hopes lawmakers and state board of education members consider working the ESSA changes into the state’s grading system, which after a delay, is currently under review by the state board of education.

McCormick was less confident other state leaders would lend their support. Although the education department is the state’s liaison with federal officials and doesn’t need approval to make changes to its ESSA plan, it can be helpful to have broader support, she said.

“It’s time for us to start working together,” Baker said. “Not being on the same page does not help the students of Indiana.”