ASD Exit

Anderson to exit as superintendent of Tennessee’s school turnaround district

PHOTO: TN.gov
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen (right) introduced Malika Anderson as the new superintendent of Tennessee's Achievement School District in late 2015. McQueen announced Anderson's departure from the job on Wednesday.

Malika Anderson, who has sought to steer Tennessee’s school turnaround district to stability, is stepping down as its second superintendent at the end of this month.

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen announced Anderson’s departure on Wednesday, while also reaffirming the state’s commitment to the Achievement School District, known as the ASD.

Kathleen Airhart, deputy commissioner and chief operations officer under the Tennessee Department of Education, will step in as interim superintendent, McQueen said in a press release.

The change comes just months after the state overhauled the ASD’s structure, cutting its staff in half and bringing in a new leadership team to work with Anderson. McQueen said the goal was to make the ASD more sustainable following the dissipation of funding under Tennessee’s federal Race to the Top award, which financed the bulk of the district’s early work.

Anderson became the ASD’s leader in January of 2016, but had been with the state-run district since its first takeovers of low-performing schools in Memphis in 2012. She took the reins from founding superintendent Chris Barbic, the hard-charging visionary behind the ASD’s model of recruiting charter management organizations to overhaul the state’s most struggling schools.

“This transition in no way disrupts our work,” McQueen said. “We are taking what we have learned about school improvement over the past five years and using that knowledge to maximize students’ success by putting in place a strong set of evidence-based options that will drive improvements in students’ performance.”

The search for a new superintendent starts immediately. According to the release, the state is seeking a leader who can build on the ASD’s work, but who also has a deep commitment to Memphis, home to the bulk of the ASD’s work. (Anderson lives in Nashville and has commuted to Memphis.)

Under Anderson’s tenure, the ASD has grown from 29 to 33 schools, but she also oversaw the district’s first school closures last year due to low enrollment.

While scores have been lackluster for most ASD schools (scores released last week for high schools were disappointing), even its critics acknowledge that the district has nudged Memphis school leaders out of complacency and created a sense of urgency to address longstanding deficiencies in neighborhood schools.

“As educators and committed supporters on the front lines can tell you, the work of improving Priority schools (in the state’s lowest 5 percent) is some of the most challenging and fulfilling work one can undertake in the field of education,” Anderson said in the state’s press release. “Although I will transition out of my role as superintendent of the ASD, I will forever champion our continuing work, love and high expectations for every child the ASD is blessed to serve.”

Anderson said later that she had made the decision to leave after the reorganization of the ASD was complete.

“I’ve done the hard work of preparing for that transition, and I’m ready to pass the baton to the next leader to take it forward,” she told Chalkbeat.

She plans to remain in Tennessee and move into consulting work.

With Anderson’s departure goes the last member of the team recruited by Barbic to develop a new model for school turnaround work.

“I’m not so sure what’s going to happen now,” said Bobby White, a former Memphis school principal who operates two state-run schools through his Frayser Community Schools.

“I’m confident the commissioner has a plan, and that we will all work to implement that plan, but I will say it saddens me that there’s no longer anyone that started this work with me,” said White, who was recruited to the ASD in 2011 by Barbic and Anderson.

Tom Beazley, leader of Promise Academy, which operates one ASD school, called Anderson an “enthusiastic, energetic and supportive superintendent.”

“[She] always worked for us to be successful and worked very hard to provide the resources and advocacy for us to do our job,” he said.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include comments from Anderson and reaction from charter operators.

Laura Faith Kebede contributed to this report.

Digging in

‘I do not plan to resign,’ McQueen tells lawmakers over latest testing missteps in Tennessee

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen testifies Wednesday before state lawmakers about technical problems that stalled students' online TNReady tests this week. Beside her is Brad Baumgartner, chief operating officer of Questar, the state's testing company.

Candice McQueen adamantly told state lawmakers Wednesday that she will not step down as Tennessee’s education commissioner over the state’s bungling of standardized tests for a third straight year.

One day after House Democrats called for the embattled leader to resign, McQueen reported that students were testing successfully online on the third day of TNReady. She said the problems of the first two days had been addressed — at least for now.

The commissioner opened a two-hour legislative hearing with an apology to students, parents, and educators for technical problems that stalled testing and affected tens of thousands of students this week.

“We were completely devastated when we heard that districts were again having technical issues yesterday,” she said of issues now being attributed to a “cyber attack” on the data center operated by testing company Questar.

She reported speaking with the head of the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation about a possible criminal investigation — but that jurisdictional issues may prevent that since Questar’s data center is located in Minnesota. Immediately, she said, the state will work with Questar to hire an independent investigator.

Rep. Mike Stewart

That plan angered Rep. Mike Stewart, a Democrat from Nashville, who fired off the opening question that set the tone for most of the day’s dialogue.

“Could you answer the fundamental question why you should not use this hearing to resign right now, based on these consistent failures?” Stewart asked, citing problems that go back to 2016 when Tennessee canceled much of TNReady after the state’s first attempt at online testing collapsed.

“I do not plan to resign,” McQueen responded, adding that she expected to power through the next three weeks of testing with “continued improvement and success.”

At her side was Brad Baumgartner, chief operating officer of Minnesota-based Questar, which is under a $30 million annual contract with Tennessee’s Department of Education that expires this year. He took responsibility for this week’s testing failures.

“I think it’s important for members here to understand that the department did everything that they could to thoughtfully plan for this administration, as did the commissioner,” Baumgartner told lawmakers.

“We own the last couple of days,” he added.

That prompted Stewart to ask McQueen why the company that’s acknowledging mistakes is also spearheading the investigation into them.

"Honestly, I can’t think of a single entity less qualified to investigate this problem than Questar, which has consistently failed."Rep. Mike Stewart, D-Nashville

“What I heard is that I don’t have any information, but I want to make an excuse for the person who hired us and gave us a bunch of money,” Stewart said. “… Honestly, I can’t think of a single entity less qualified to investigate this problem than Questar, which has consistently failed.”

McQueen said the state and Questar will consult with the TBI about bringing in a third-party investigator, and she pledged to ask Davidson County’s attorney general to request a TBI probe. (After the hearing, she formally made that request.)

She added that she was open to the idea of suspending accountability measures for one year and holding students, teachers, and schools harmless based on this year’s tests, if that is the will of the legislature. But state lawmakers, who are expected to wind down the 2018 session next week, would have to authorize that change since it’s now part of state law.

In contrast to Stewart, Rep. Mark White came to McQueen’s defense and urged her to dig in her heels.

“Don’t you dare consider resigning,” the Memphis Republican told the commissioner. “The easy thing to do is quit and give up when the going gets tough.”

He recounted how Tennessee was blasted in 2007 for its low academic standards and dishonesty in reporting that its students were doing well on state achievement tests when they were tanking on national tests.

“We were failing our students 10 years ago,” said White, calling the testing problems “hiccups” and hailing the state’s more rigorous standards.

“[Today] we are the fastest-improving state in the nation. We didn’t get there by pushing back and giving up and throwing our hands up and saying, ‘Oh it’s too hard.’”

A former classroom teacher and university dean, McQueen was appointed education chief in late 2014 by Gov. Bill Haslam. On Tuesday, a Haslam spokeswoman said the Republican governor has “complete confidence in Commissioner McQueen.”

You can see McQueen’s presentation below:

Movers and Shakers

Indianapolis Public Schools’ Lewis Ferebee is a finalist to lead Los Angeles schools

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Lewis Ferebee

Indianapolis Public Schools Superintendent Lewis Ferebee is a finalist to lead the Los Angeles school district, the nation’s second largest, according to Indianapolis Public Schools Board President Michael O’Connor.

Former investment banker Austin Beutner is apparently the frontrunner for the job, according to the Los Angeles Times, which first reported the news. Ferebee is another finalist along with interim Los Angeles Superintendent Vivian Ekchian and former Baltimore Superintendent Andres Alonso. Ferebee didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

Ferebee has made a name for himself nationally by overhauling Indianapolis Public Schools, converting low-performing schools into “innovation schools” run by outside charter operators but still under the district’s umbrella.

The selection of Ferebee might signal that Los Angeles is further embracing what some call the “portfolio model” — the idea that all schools should be given freedom to operate as they see fit, but held accountable for their results, largely through test scores.

Under Ferebee’s tenure, IPS has embraced key tenets of the approach, including a common enrollment system for district and charter schools and an initiative that turns over district schools to nonprofit or outside charter operators who handle daily management. Some Los Angeles school board members have suggested the district move in a similar direction.

O’Connor said that Ferebee’s selection as a finalist in such a large district is “a sign that both he and the school system are doing things that people are paying attention to and in many places want to emulate.”

He said that Ferebee told him that he was approached by a hiring firm that asked him to be in the pool of candidates for the Los Angeles position. O’Connor noted that Ferebee has been with the district for nearly five years, longer than is typical for urban superintendents.

“We’ve been lucky,” O’Connor said.

The average urban tenure of superintendents leading urban school districts is just over three years, according to a 2014 survey conducted by the Council of Great City Schools.

Even if Ferebee does not leave Indianapolis, the public confirmation that he is interested in other jobs could handicap his ability to win community support at pivotal time for Indianapolis Public Schools. The district will close nearly half of its high schools at the end of this year. And leaders are in the midst of a rocky campaign to seek more funding from taxpayers — an appeal that was first scaled back and then suspended. The district is now working with the Indy Chamber to craft a new proposal that leaders expect to put on the ballot in November.

Chamber chief policy officer Mark Fisher said that the campaign cannot hinge on a individual. Ferebee’s selection as a finalist in Los Angeles reinforces the need for a strong school board, which oversees the district and would hire his replacement if he leaves.

“Nobody is irreplaceable,” Fisher said. “He is an exceptional leader. But I have full faith in the board.”

If Ferebee took the helm of the Los Angeles school system, it would be a dramatic move. The Los Angeles district has more than 640,000 students, about 20 times as many students as Indianapolis Public Schools.

Ferebee came to Indianapolis in 2013. He previously served as chief of staff for the superintendent of Durham, N.C. Until coming to Indianapolis, he spent most of his career in traditional public school systems in that state.

Since Ferebee took the helm at the city’s largest school district, Indianapolis Public Schools has significantly improved its graduation rate to 83 percent, up from about 68 percent. The district has not seen improvement in scores on ISTEP, the state standardized exams.

Read more about Ferebee here: The basics of Lewis Ferebee: An IPS superintendent pushing hard for change