Outgoing ASD chief reflects on Tennessee’s school turnaround journey

Malika Anderson began working with Tennessee's Achievement School District in 2011 and has served as its superintendent since January of 2016. She will step down at the end of September.

One of the first leaders recruited to Tennessee’s Achievement School District, Malika Anderson helped to usher in a school turnaround model aimed at cutting out central bureaucracy and moving decision-making closer to the classroom.

As she leaves the state-run district five years later, that turnaround strategy remains mostly intact — but the thinking has changed about the best vehicle for accomplishing it.

Anderson talked with Chalkbeat about the changes after her impending departure was announced on Wednesday by Education Commissioner Candice McQueen.

“For the ASD, we will continue to serve as an intervention option, but we’re no longer the only state intervention option,” Anderson said.

The Achievement School District, which launched in the Race to the Top era by taking control of low-performing neighborhood schools and converting them to charter schools, is now taking a back seat to more localized interventions that are supported or prodded by the state. It’s all part of the shift to more district control under Tennessee’s school improvement plan in response to the federal education law known as the Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA.

Anderson will end her two-year tenure as superintendent at the end of this month and plans to take a break before getting back into education, possibly as a consultant.

“Any educator or advocate in school turnaround will tell you, a single year is like a dog year. It takes a lot out of you,” she said.

In a Q&A with Chalkbeat, the outgoing superintendent reflects on what she learned while working with the ASD — and what advice she would give her successor. Her answers have been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.

You just got a new leadership team into place. Why leave now?

I’m making this transition now because we just completed a summer-long complete reorganization of the district with a new leadership team, a new staff, a new charge under the state’s ESSA school improvement plan. It’s now about preparing the ASD to move into the future with greater efficacy and sustainability. 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. It was my decision. I gave Candice [McQueen] notice about two weeks ago.

What have you and the ASD learned about school turnaround work in the five years of the district’s existence?

How important the political, economic and social support structures for schools, operators and districts are to enable their success. This is not an either/or thing of focusing on great teachers or focusing on poverty. It’s absolutely all of it and all at once. (This) requires significantly more investment of time, resources and coordination of priorities than I certainly went into this understanding.

Also, the impact of poverty. We cannot say that poverty does matter and then not put the supports in place to address symptoms of it.

What are you most proud of in your time at the helm?

I am most proud of the fact that schools that had been rated Fs by the State Department of Education over a decade ago — and hadn’t made any progress even when standards were of lower rigor —  are now getting the attention they deserve. We’re talking about those schools now. That’s huge.

What do you wish you could have accomplished that you didn’t?

I wish that I could have eliminated the Memphis vs. Nashville tension and competition. I really thought that when we were collectively focused on addressing needs of most vulnerable students in priority schools in new ways, that it would have taken us further down the road of deprioritizing many of historical conflicts that arise between Nashville and Memphis.

Those conflicts made it harder for us to do our work. There was political noise that distracted our educators from their core work. They can’t focus on their work when we’re fighting about zoning, student contact information or equitable access for facilities. That is such a distraction and a systematic distraction to our work that I wish I would have been able to more significantly reduce in the last five years.

How significant has Tennessee’s ESSA plan been in rethinking the ASD’s role for school turnaround work in the future?

Very significant. ESSA really prioritizes district empowerment and local control. There is a return to investing more time in district intervening themselves in their schools. (This) means that for the ASD, we will continue to serve as an intervention option, but we’re no longer the only state intervention option. We served as many as six to eight new schools a year and, going forward, the growth of the ASD will be smaller as we support the success of local school districts intervening themselves in their priority schools.

What’s your advice for the ASD’s next leader?

Know and honor the history of the communities that you are serving. There is a hell of a lot of good there, right? And there are warriors who have been fighting this battle on behalf of their kids for generations that should be included instead of us coming in as white knight to save the day.

Also, to maintain exceptionally high expectations for what our kids can do. When we hit challenges, or don’t see the outside gains that we all want for our kids in a very short time, some people could start to lower expectations for what’s possible for our kids, that’s the wrong move. We have to keep expectations high and adjust our own perceptions and resources to help our kids, who we know get there.

five years in

Tennessee’s two big school turnaround experiments are yielding big lessons, researchers say

PHOTO: Kyle Kurlick
A student walks through the hall of Frayser Achievement Elementary School, one of five Memphis schools directly run by Tennessee's Achievement School District.

A national pioneer in school turnaround work, Tennessee this month received a report card of sorts from researchers who have closely followed its two primary initiatives for five years.

The assessment was both grim and promising — and punctuated with lessons that already are informing the state’s efforts to improve struggling schools.

The grim: The state-run Achievement School District fell woefully short of its initial goal of vaulting the state’s 5 percent of lowest-achieving schools to the top 25 percent within five years. This model, based on the Recovery School District in Louisiana, allowed Tennessee to take control of struggling local schools and to partner with charter management organizations to turn them around. But not only has the ASD failed to move the needle on student achievement, it has struggled to retain teachers and to build a climate of collaboration among its schools, which now number 33.

The promising: Innovation zones, which are run by several local districts with the help of extra state funding, have shown promise in improving student performance, based on a widely cited 2015 study by Vanderbilt University. The model gives schools autonomy over financial, programmatic and staffing decisions, similar to charter schools. While iZones exist in Memphis, Nashville and Chattanooga, the most notable work has been through Shelby County Schools, now with 23 Memphis schools in its turnaround program. Not only have student outcomes improved in the iZone, its schools have enjoyed lower teacher turnover rates and greater retention of high-quality teachers.

One big lesson, according to this month’s report: Removing schools from their structures of local government isn’t necessary to improve student outcomes.

That explains Tennessee’s decision, under the new federal education law, to include partnership zones as part of its expanded turnaround toolkit. The model offers charter-like autonomy but is governed jointly by local and state officials. The first zone will launch next fall in Chattanooga, where the school board reluctantly approved the arrangement recently for five chronically underperforming schools that otherwise would have been taken over by the ASD.

The partnership model avoids the toll of school takeover, which the report’s researchers say contributed to community mistrust of the ASD, especially in its home base of Memphis.

“That faith in the ask of these schools going to the state operator came with the promise to raise student achievement,” said researcher James Guthrie. “To not see this achievement in the first round of results raises a crisis of legitimacy (for the ASD).”

Candice McQueen

Guthrie is among researchers who have followed school turnaround efforts as part of the Tennessee Education Research Alliance, or TERA. The group’s work continues to guide the State Department of Education on what has worked, what has not, and why. Education Commissioner Candice McQueen requested their five-year summary as part of the state’s own self-analysis, as well as to inform school improvement work nationwide.

In interviews with Chalkbeat, TERA researchers emphasized that the final word hasn’t been written on any of the turnaround models in play in Tennessee. They continue to track students in struggling schools. And they emphasized that turnaround is a long game, one that the ASD’s founders underestimated.

“The cautionary tale of any reform is to be realistic about what you can achieve,” said Ron Zimmer of the University of Kentucky. “…If (the ASD) had been more realistic, people would have had more realistic expectations (about) what would have been deemed a success.”

The operators of ASD schools have had a steep learning curve amid daunting challenges that include high student mobility, extreme poverty, a lack of shared resources, barriers to school choice, and on-the-ground opposition.

Five years in, there’s still hope that the ASD can improve its schools with more time, said Joshua Glazer of George Washington University.

“We have seen that several providers have learned some hard lessons and are now applying those lessons to their models,” Glazer said. “Many have overhauled curriculum and taken a very different approach to supporting teachers. Across the board, providers have realized that much more robust systems of guidance and support are needed. These changes have the potential to lead to better student outcomes, but only time will tell if scores will go up.”

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
A former superintendent for Jackson-Madison County Schools, Verna Ruffin became the ASD’s chief of academics in August.

The state recently recruited a new academic leader, and it’s looking for a new superintendent who can create a more collaborative environment within the ASD’s portfolio of operators and schools. The district also underwent a major restructuring over the summer, cutting staff to curb costs and streamline roles as federal money ran out from Tennessee’s Race to the Top award.

Funding will be among the biggest long-term challenges for both the state-run district and the local iZones, said Zimmer.

While the Memphis’ iZone has shown initial success, it’s an expensive model that includes educator bonuses and adds an hour to the school day.  

The ASD also needs adequate funding, but Zimmer said that became harder when its schools did not produce early gains. “It takes up to five or six years before see we significant benefit from a program like the ASD,” he said. “The problem is that people don’t have the political patience to wait for it.”

McQueen emphasizes frequently that all of the state’s turnaround models work together. She and Gov. Bill Haslam remain steadfast in their support of the ASD — a point she drove home again on Wednesday when asked about the embattled district.

“It is the state’s most rigorous intervention as noted in Tennessee’s recently approved ESSA plan,” McQueen said, “and is clearly a critical part of the state’s accountability model.”

For more discussion about the five-year brief, you can read blog posts in Education Week from TERA and the State Department of Education.

good news bad news

Most Tennessee districts are showing academic growth, but districts with the farthest to go improved the least

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

It’s not just Memphis: Across Tennessee, districts with many struggling schools posted lower-than-expected growth scores on this year’s state exams, according to data released Tuesday.

The majority of Tennessee’s 147 districts did post scores that suggest students are making or exceeding expected progress, with over a third earning the top growth score.

But most students in three of the state’s four largest districts — in Memphis, Nashville and Chattanooga — aren’t growing academically as they should, and neither are those in most of their “priority schools” in the state’s bottom 5 percent.

The divide prompted Education Commissioner Candice McQueen to send a “good news, bad news” email to superintendents.

“These results point to the ability for all students to grow,” she wrote of the top-performing districts, many of which have a wide range of academic achievement and student demographics.

Of those in the bottom, she said the state would analyze the latest data to determine “critical next steps,” especially for priority schools, which also are located in high-poverty communities.

“My message to the leaders of Priority schools … is that this level of growth will never get kids back on track, so we have to double-down on what works – strong instruction and engagement, every day, with no excuses,” McQueen said.

Growth scores are supposed to take poverty into account, so the divide suggests that either the algorithm didn’t work as it’s supposed to or, in fact, little has happened to change conditions at the state’s lowest-performing schools, despite years of aggressive efforts in many places.

The results are bittersweet for Tennessee, which has pioneered growth measures for student learning and judging the effectiveness of its teachers and schools under its Tennessee Value-Added Assessment System, known as TVAAS.

On the one hand, the latest TVAAS data shows mostly stable growth through the transition to TNReady, the state’s new test aligned to new academic standards, in the first year of full testing for grades 3-11. On the other hand, Tennessee has invested tens of millions of dollars and years of reforms toward improving struggling schools — all part of its massive overhaul of K-12 education fueled by its 2009 federal Race to the Top award.

The state-run Achievement School District, which launched in the Race to the Top era to turn around the lowest-performing schools, saw a few bright spots, but almost two-thirds of schools in its charter-reliant portfolio scored in the bottom levels of student growth.

Shelby County’s own turnaround program, the Innovation Zone, fared poorly too, with a large percentage of its Memphis schools scoring 1 on a scale of 1 to 5, after years of scoring 4s and 5s.

District profile: Most Memphis schools score low on student growth

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson called the results a “wakeup call” for the state’s biggest district in Memphis.

“When you have a population of kids in high poverty that were already lagging behind on the old, much easier test, it’s not surprising that we’ve got a lot of work to do here,” he said, citing the need to support teachers in mastering the state’s new standards.

“The good part is that we’ve seen the test now and we know what’s expected. The bad part is we’ve seen the test … and it’s a different monster,” he told Chalkbeat.

You can find district composite scores below. (A TVAAS score of 3 represents average growth for a student in one school year.) For a school-by-school list, visit the state’s website.