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.

Time crunch

Specialized high schools lawsuit could delay admissions decisions, New York City says in court filings

PHOTO: Christina Veiga/Chalkbeat
Asian-American parents and community leaders gathered in Brooklyn to learn about a lawsuit against part of the city's plan to integrate specialized high schools.

New York City students may have to wait longer than usual to learn where they’ve been accepted to high school as the city prepares for a ruling in a lawsuit challenging integration efforts, according to court records filed Wednesday.

The city asked Judge Edgardo Ramos to rule by Feb. 25 on a preliminary injunction to block admissions changes aimed at enrolling more black and Hispanic students in the city’s prestigious but segregated specialized high schools.

A decision would be needed by then in order to meet the “latest feasible date to mail offer letters,” which the city says would be March 18 given the tight timeline around the admissions process.  The delay would apply to all students, not just those vying for a seat at a specialized high school. 

“DOE is mindful that a delay in the mailing of high school offers will increase anxiety for students and families, cause complications for those students considering private school offers, and require specialized high schools and non-specialized high schools to reschedule and restaff open houses,” the letter said.

A spokesman for the education department said the city will “communicate with families when a final offer date has been determined.” Letters were originally scheduled to be sent by March 4.

Filed in December, the lawsuit against the city seeks to halt an expansion of the Discovery program, which offers admission to students who scored just below the cutoff on the exam that is the sole entrance criteria for specialized high schools. The Discovery expansion, slated to begin this year, is one piece of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s plan to diversify the elite high schools.

Asian-American parents and community organizations say the expansion unfairly excludes their children. Asian students make up 62 percent of enrollment at specialized high schools, but comprise only 16 percent of the student body citywide.

The suit calls for a preliminary injunction, which would put the Discovery expansion on hold while the case winds its way through the courts — and would disrupt the admissions cycle already underway for eighth-graders enrolling in high school next year. The process of matching students to specialized high schools was scheduled to begin this week, the city’s letter states.

The plaintiffs wrote a letter supporting the city’s timeline for a decision on the preliminary injunction, saying their aim is to stop the proposed admissions changes “before they can have the anticipated discriminatory effect.”

Hitting pause on the Discovery program expansion would mean the education department has to recalculate the cutoff score for admission to specialized high schools, consult with principals, work with the test vendor to verify scores, and generate offer letters to send to students, city attorney Marilyn Richter wrote in a letter to the judge.

The education department “has never made such a significant course adjustment midstream in the process before,” she wrote.

Education Inequalities

Is Michigan ready for a ‘grand bargain’ to improve its struggling education system?

PHOTO: Lori Higgins/Chalkbeat
Teresa Weatherall Neal, superintendent of the Grand Rapids school district, speaks during a panel discussion that also featured, from left, Detroit Free Press columnist Rochelle Riley, Detroit Superintendent Nikolai Vitti and former U.S. Education Secretary John King.

A new political dynamic in Lansing has put Michigan in a position to potentially see the kind of education transformation that helped catapult Massachusetts to its status as the top-performing state in the nation, says a former U.S. Secretary of Education.

That bit of optimism from John King, who served as education secretary from 2016 to 2017 and is now the president and CEO of The Education Trust, came after nearly three hours of sobering discussion during an event Wednesday about the need to address inequities in education in Michigan.

Several times, King used the term “grand bargain” to describe what Michigan needs. It’s a term many Detroiters will remember from the Detroit bankruptcy and the deal that was a key part of getting the city out of bankruptcy.

As it relates to education, the term “grand bargain” has been used to refer to the bipartisan agreement struck more than two decades ago in Massachusetts that had broad buy-in from business and education groups, teachers, and parents, to improve academic achievement. The gist: The state invested more money in schools. In return, standards and accountability were increased.

King said Michigan is poised to reach the same consensus and invest more money in education, in particular investing money more equitably so the highest-need students are getting the most funding. He said there needs to be a thoughtful approach to accountability, as well as more investments in teacher preparation and support.

He sees it happening because of new leadership at the state level, including Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and new Republican leaders of the House and Senate.

“This is a moment where the new leadership in Lansing could come together … and it could be truly transformative.”

The event Wednesday, which took place at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, was organized by the Education Trust-Midwest, a Royal Oak-based education advocacy and research organization. The topic was inequities in education and the need to provide equitable opportunities for children regardless on where they live.

Amber Arellano, executive director of the organization, said Michigan ranks 43rd out of 47 states for the funding gap between poor and wealthy school districts.

“Students and families pay the price for this under-investment,” Arellano said.

She said the experiences of states like Massachusetts that have seen striking improvement provide hope for Michigan because they show transformation can happen over five to 10 years.

Michigan has been falling behind other states in performance on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a national exam that tests a representative sample of students in each state. The state’s performance, in fact, has shown little to no improvement over the last decade.

“We rise and we fall together. In Michigan’s case, we’re falling together,” Arellano said.

The audience at the event’s two panel discussions also heard from speakers such as Nikolai Vitti, superintendent of the Detroit school district. He said that often, when K-12 educators talk about the need for more resources, “you see the rolling eyes of lawmakers.”

But, Vitti said, “It takes funding to educate children. And it takes more funding to educate children who enter … with more challenges.”

Panelists agreed that Michigan is at a pivotal moment because of its new leadership. And they came up with solutions they think will make a difference.

Melody Arabo, outreach specialist at EdReports.org and former Michigan Teacher of the Year, said the state needs to address a lack of resources for educators. She said that in a classroom of 30 students, a teacher can have some reading at the kindergarten level and others “who can read better than I can.”

The materials that teachers have “are not meeting those needs. Teachers spend an average of 12 hours a week going online looking for resources.”

David Meador, vice chairman and chief administrative officer of DTE Energy, said Michigan should look at what successful states have done and adopt best practices. Just as important, he said:“Stick with it. Don’t change it every year.”

For King, the solution to improving schools is simple and starts at a young age.

“If Michigan is going to improve, it will need a surge in high quality early learning that prepares every child for kindergarten or beyond,” King said.