Challenging charters

Report: Why the work is hard for Tennessee’s turnaround district and its charter schools

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

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.

"Despite the ardent commitment of ASD leaders to create the conditions that would enable CMOs and independent operators to take root and flourish in the turnaround space, the inherited rules of the game, the institutional environment in which they were located, and the stresses of an impoverished community presented even the most experienced providers with steep challenges."Consortium report

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.

awards season

For the first time in two decades, New York’s Teacher of the Year hails from New York City — and West Africa

PHOTO: New York State Education Department
Bronx International High School teacher Alhassan Susso, center, is New York State's 2019 Teacher of the Year.

An immigrant from West Africa who teaches social studies to immigrant students in the Bronx is New York State’s newest Teacher of the Year.

Alhassan Susso, who works at International Community High School in Mott Haven, received the award Tuesday, becoming the first New York City teacher to do so since 1998.

As the state’s Teacher of the Year, Susso will travel the state to work with local educators — and will represent New York in the national competition at a time when federal authorities are aggressively seeking to limit immigration.

A decorated teacher with significant vision impairment since childhood, Susso came to New York from Gambia at 16 and had a rocky experience at his upstate high school, which he chronicled in an autobiography he published in 2016. Assuming that he would struggle academically because he was an immigrant, even though English is the official language of Gambia, his teachers assigned him to a remedial reading class. There, he found a compassionate teacher who was attentive to the diverse needs of her students, who came from all over the world.

Now, Susso is playing that role at his school. International Community High School, part of the Internationals Network for new immigrants, has a special program for students who did not receive a formal education before coming to the United States.

“Alhassan Susso exemplifies the dedication and passion of our 79,000 New York City teachers,” city Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza said in a statement. “Using the obstacles he’s overcome and lessons he’s learned in his own life, Alhassan has changed the trajectory of students’ lives and helped them pursue their dreams.”

New York City teachers make up nearly 40 percent of the state’s teaching force but have won the Teacher of the Year honor only six times since 1965, the last in 1998. This year’s winner had a strong chance of ending the two-decade shutout: Two of the three finalists teach in the Bronx. In addition to Susso, Frederick Douglass Academy III chemistry teacher William Green was up for the award.

regents roundup

Regents support a new way of evaluating charter schools and soften penalties for schools with high opt-out rates

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Chancellor Betty Rosa, center, at a recent Board of Regents meeting.

New York’s top education policymakers tentatively approved new rules Monday on two hot-button issues: the penalties for districts and schools where many students opt out of state tests — and how nearly 100 charter schools across the state will be evaluated.

Here’s what you need to know about the new policies that the state’s Board of Regents set in motion.

Potential penalties for high opt-out rates were softened

After criticism from activists and parents within the opt-out movement and pushback from the state teachers union, the Regents walked back some of the consequences schools and districts can face when students refuse to take state exams.

Among the most significant changes, which state officials first floated last week, is that districts with high opt-out rates will not be required to use a portion of their federal funding to increase their testing rates.

“I do not ever want to be the person who takes money away from children,” State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia said.

The regulations are part of the state’s plan under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act and stem from a federal mandate that 95 percent of students take the state’s annual reading and math exams.

The Regents tweaked other rules requiring schools to create improvement plans if they fall below the 95 percent threshold. Schools with average or higher test scores will not have to come up with those plans.

Still, some parents who support the opt-out movement and who attended Monday’s meeting said the changes don’t go far enough and that schools with lower test scores should also be exempt from coming up with plans to boost participation rates.

“There’s still so much left to be addressed,” said Kemala Karmen, a New York City public school parent who attended the meeting.

The new regulations will likely not have a major effect in New York City, where opt-out rates have remained relatively low. Although New York State has been the epicenter of the test-boycott movement — with roughly one in five students refusing to take the tests, according to the most recent data — less than 4 percent of the city’s students declined to take them.

The Regents unanimously approved the changes, although their vote is technically preliminary. The tweaks will still be subject to a 30-day public comment period and will likely be brought to a final vote in December.

New criteria for evaluating charter schools

The Regents also narrowly approved a new framework for evaluating the roughly 100 charter schools that the board oversees across the state, 63 of which are in New York City.

The new framework is meant to bring charter schools in line with how the state judges district-run schools. Under the new federal education law, the Regents have moved away from emphasizing test scores as the key indicator of a school’s success.

In keeping with that shift, the new charter framework will require schools to have policies covering chronic absenteeism, out-of-school suspension rates, and other measures of school culture to help decide whether they are successful enough to remain open.

And while the new framework does not spell out specific rates of chronic absenteeism a school must fall below, for example, it does explicitly add those policies to the mix of factors the Regents consider. (Officials said that test scores and graduation rates would still remain among the most important factors in evaluating charter schools.)

At Monday’s meeting, discussion of the charter framework prompted broad complaints about the charter sector from some Regents. The state’s framework for evaluating charters was last updated in 2015; the board has added several new members and a new chancellor since then.

The current board has repeatedly sent mixed messages about the sector, approving large batches of new charters while also rejecting others and raising questions about whether the schools serve a fair share of high-need students.

“We’re giving money away from our public schools to charters,” Regent Kathy Cashin said, emphasizing that she believes the state should more deeply probe when students leave charter schools and survey families to find out why.

Charters receive some freedom from rules governing most district-run schools, but in exchange the schools are expected to meet certain performance benchmarks or else face closure.

State officials said the new framework does not include new standards for how New York judges enrollment and retention. Under the current rules, schools must enroll a similar number of students with disabilities, English learners, and low-income students as other nearby district schools. If they don’t, they must show that they’re making progress toward that goal.

Ultimately, the new framework was approved eight to five in a preliminary vote and will be brought back to the full board for approval on Tuesday.