Charter schools operating through Tennessee’s 4-year-old school turnaround district have struggled to achieve the initiative’s lofty goals due to a variety of challenges — some unique to the state-run charter program, and some common to all Memphis schools, a new report says.
Tasked with transforming some of Tennessee’s lowest-performing schools through the Achievement School District, or ASD, the charter operators have grappled with “daunting challenges” that include high student mobility, extreme poverty, a lack of shared resources, barriers to school choice, and on-the-ground opposition, according to the report released this week by researchers led by George Washington University.
The report, which is based on 140 interviews with leaders of the ASD and nine operators, illuminates some of the reasons why the state-run district has not come close to reaching its targeted goals of moving schools from the state’s bottom 5 percent to the top 25 percent within five years.
Researchers also identify practices that charter operators are using to try to overcome the challenges, although they say it’s too soon to say whether the strategies have been effective. Those include instructional adaptations, computer-assisted learning and additional wraparound services.
The ASD’s work is concentrated in Memphis, where it manages 22 charter schools and five district-run schools. Many of the challenges identified by researchers — like high student mobility and lack of parent engagement — are endemic to most Memphis schools, including Shelby County’s Innovation Zone, which has drawn national attention for its academic gains, and which so far has been more effective than the ASD at boosting students’ scores.
But the paper’s authors argue that “ASD operators had to contend with many of the constraints that impede traditional schools, yet without the benefits that a conventional district could provide,” such as centralized special education services, resources that leverage economies of scale, and a long history with the community. And though the district aims to give them the benefits of other charter schools, like a high-level of autonomy, the ASD schools face challenges most charters do not.
The report comes at a time when several states such as North Carolina and Georgia are considering replicating Tennessee’s school turnaround district, which takes control of low-performing schools and assigns them to high-quality charter management organizations to turn around.
The paper provides a candid look at Tennessee’s much-watched effort to employ high-profile charter operators in school turnaround work in an environment that is substantially different from their usual circumstances. While many charters have been successful working with disadvantaged students, they historically have been reluctant to embrace conditions such as turnaround environments — for instance, having to assume control over existing neighborhood schools, rather than operating schools with open choice. But in Tennessee, where federal Race to the Top funding led to the creation its state-run district in 2010, many charter organizations were recruited and incentivized to join the portfolio of schools managed by the ASD and granted broad discretion in hiring, curriculum, instruction and budgeting.
“While charter operators were not naïve about the conditions in the ASD, many did not fully anticipate how much these differences (within turnaround environments) would influence their instructional and organizational designs, expand their mission, and require complex adaptations,” the authors write.
The researchers’ findings will be “a great conversation starter” within the ASD and with Shelby County Schools, said Bobby S. White, chief of external affairs for the state-run district.
“It’s good for people to see and get a feel for the challenges these charters are facing,” White said Wednesday. “It underscores how these operators are adapting in the face of these realities.”
White said the district will use the report to assess what parts of these challenges it can control or influence as charter operators adjust. The report also will help charter applicants to better understand the realities of school turnaround work in Memphis.
Founding superintendent Chris Barbic, who resigned in 2015, put it this way when speaking with researchers: “When I’m talking to people now, I’m like, this is the big leagues. If you want to play the equivalent to basketball for the Kentucky Wildcats where every single game is huge, it’s a circus, you’re under intense scrutiny, the pressure to perform is incredible. … If you think you’re ready for the big leagues, come to Memphis.”
The main challenges faced by charter schools in the ASD, according to the researchers, are:
Student mobility. Like traditional public schools, but unlike most charter schools, ASD schools serve a steady flow of new students throughout the school year, making it harder to hone in on the learning challenges of students and offer tailored instruction. More than one-third of students in ASD schools move in or out of their schools during the school year, an improvement over student mobility at the schools prior to ASD takeover, and comparable to mobility in iZone schools.
One operator told researchers that leaders had expected the school’s third year of operation to be “the dream year” as students finally adjusted to the school’s culture and caught up to grade level. “Instead, it was very similar to our first year because of all the new students who arrived on our campus,” the operator said.
While most educators in traditional Memphis schools are familiar with high student mobility, most charter operators weren’t. Most charter schools in other states aren’t neighborhood schools; families have to choose them. That makes it easier for charters to create a common school culture and get students and families to subscribe to a set of behavioral expectations — two factors considered key to charter schools’ successes. But Tennessee legislation requires ASD schools to recruit students within the boundaries of the school’s neighborhood attendance areas, or from other low-performing schools, restricting charters’ usual ability to draw from a broad pool of families.
Special education. ASD operators serve a substantially higher concentration of students with special needs than is typical in other charter schools in Tennessee, one of the “most formidable financial and educational challenges” identified by the report’s authors because of the ASD’s funding model and relatively small size.
While Shelby County Schools and most other districts are able to centralize and share special education services across schools, the ASD is built on the idea of autonomy — meaning each school bears the cost of their special education students’ needs alone. Many ASD operators in Memphis send special education students to programs managed by Shelby County Schools and told the researchers that they suspected they were being overcharged for programs that they also did not deem high quality.
Some operators also told researchers that Shelby County Schools often became a barrier to serving special education students. According to the paper, some operators reported that the local district made it difficult to access students’ individualized education plans, known as IEPs, after the students transitioned to the ASD, which made it difficult for the new ASD schools to identify students’ needs and plan on how to support them.
“There was supposed to be a process in place to transfer all the files to us. And somehow that didn’t necessarily take place,” one operator said. “ So I played find the files. You know, they gave me a key and said the files are in a black filing cabinet. And so I still have the key — I still don’t have the files.”
Local politics. Operators were not prepared for the high level of opposition they would face in Memphis, or the compromises to their models they would have to make to respond to the local district and the community, the report says.
“This has been humbling for me,” said one operator who came to Tennessee from another state. “I’ve learned so much about just how complex education can be in particular landscapes.”
A major compromise has been the political shift requiring operators to take control of entire schools, rather than just a grade at a time. Leaders of Shelby County Schools barred phase-ins in 2014, saying the process was too disruptive for Shelby County students and faculty forced to share a school building with the ASD. While some operators, such as Green Dot Public Schools, always assumed control of whole schools, other operators never had — or planned to.
Researchers suggest that the community opposition to the ASD might have made leaders with Shelby County Schools wary of collaborating with the state-run district.
That being said, the ASD’s White told Chalkbeat that he is optimistic about the relationship between the districts.
“You’re starting to see conversations being had and realizations regarding the need to have these conversations,” White said.
The report was released by George Washington University, the University of Michigan, and the Consortium for Policy Research in Education.
Memphis reporter Laura Faith Kebede contributed to this report.