new era

Leaders of Tennessee’s state-run district call test scores ‘sobering,’ ask educators for new energy

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Sharon Griffin, who was named to lead the Achievement School District two months ago, spoke directly about the staggering challenges facing the 6-year-old school system.

Sharon Griffin, the new leader of Tennessee’s state-run district, vowed to a crowd of school leaders and educators that together they would fix falling achievement scores in underachieving schools.

Griffin, who was named to lead the Achievement School District two months ago, spoke directly about the staggering challenges facing the 6-year-old school system. She was joined by state Education Commissioner Candice McQueen during the district’s Summer Summit in Memphis on Tuesday, where educators set priorities for the school year.

This year’s batch of scores, which were released early in July, revealed that test scores for state-run schools remain far below the statewide average and dropped in high school. School-level data is not yet available.

mcqueen, achievement school district
PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen called the new state test data for the turnaround district “sobering.”

“If I’m at stage 3, I need you to tell me what treatment is available,” Griffin told the crowd. “My commitment to the ASD moving forward is frequent communication on progress, lessons learned, and challenges.”

The Achievement School District — now made up of 30 schools, mostly in Memphis — was launched to transform the state’s bottom 5 percent of schools by converting them to charter schools.

In English II, only 4 percent of high schoolers were on or exceeding grade-level, down from 9.8 percent last year. Three years ago, 10.2 percent of students were on grade level.

In geometry, the drop was smaller, with 0.9 percent of high schoolers on or exceeding grade level, compared to 1.3 percent last year. The percentage of students on grade level has hovered around 1 percent in geometry for the last three years.

“I want transparency and honesty in where we are,” Griffin told the audience. “High school principals, you have the hardest job. This doesn’t mean it’s impossible to tackle the issues. But a double-digit gain this year is what we need to be on track again.”

There was growth of scores in grades three through eight, however, students in the state-run district are still scoring 28.1 points below the statewide average in math and 25.7 points below the statewide average in English.

Griffin said her game plan for improving the district includes monthly visits with community partners, a “students first” mentality, and coaches who will provide more support around professional development.

“Every school I have ever led was challenging and difficult,” said Griffin, a longtime Memphis educator and most recently the leader of the Shelby County Schools’ Innovation Zone. “But we’ve got this, ASD. Everything we need is in this room. Will it be easy? No. Is it possible? Yes.”

The iZone is made up of low-performing schools operated by Shelby County Schools and have outpaced progress of those run by the state.

sharon griffin, achievement school district
PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Sharon Griffin was met with a standing ovation.

Both the lingering challenges and new hope for the state-run district – Griffin was greeted with a standing ovation – were on display during the daylong series of sessions. The summit began with presentations from Griffin and McQueen, who hired Griffin to spearhead the district of charter operators.

McQueen, who spoke first, praised the work of the state to improve standards in core instruction areas and create more accurate state tests and assessments. But she also called the new state test data for the turnaround district “sobering.”

“It’s like you’re training for a race, and you’re improving, but you are still in the last group that finishes the race,” McQueen said to the crowd. “I want you to start there, not discouraged, but knowing, ‘I have to do better than I did yesterday.’ ”

McQueen told Chalkbeat after the presentations that she and Griffin have been meeting to discuss additional student testing and changes to the curriculum as potential solutions to improving the district’s academics.

She said there’s a need to strengthen classroom curriculum in the district, and two solutions are requiring charter operators to select curriculum from a list of approved choices, and asking for more frequent testing of students.

“We went away over the last couple of years from (monthly) assessments,” McQueen said. “We need to see school by school how we’re doing during the year and not wait until the end to see where we are.”

Markeita Douglas, a Memphis parent who has watched the state-run district since it began, said after the event on Tuesday that she believed “today is the new day of the new beginning of the ASD.”

“‘The urgency is now’ is the phrase I’m left with,” said Douglas, who was present at the summit. “The data we looked at shows how the work has to be done now, we can’t wait any more. Real children need for things to get better.”


Frustrations over principal turnover flare up at IPS School 43

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
School 43

It began with a tame slideshow presentation about hiring a new principal at School 43. But the Wednesday night meeting soon spiraled into a venting session — as parents and teachers pleaded with Indianapolis Public Schools to send in more staff.

Bakari Posey, the principal of School 43, departed for another job last week in the latest upheaval at the school, which is also known as James Whitcomb Riley. The assistant principal, Endia Ellison, has taken over in an interim capacity, as the district searches for a new leader for the school, which has faced significant turnover in recent years.

“This school needs help,” said Natasha Milam, who has three children at School 43, which serves about 450 students in prekindergarten to eighth-grade. “We need you all to listen. And we need you all to hear us.”

Milam, who volunteers at the school, said that because the building does not have enough staff to handle behavior problems, students are suspended far too often — meaning students are at home doing chores or getting into trouble, instead of in class learning.

Many in the neighborhood had hoped Posey, who is from the community, would be able to turn the school around after the previous two school leaders left their posts just months into the job. But under Posey’s leadership, the school continued to struggle on state tests, with just 7 percent of students passing both the math and English exams last year.

And after two-and-a-half years on the job, Posey left and began working this week as assistant principal at Fall Creek Valley Middle School in Lawrence Township. In an email Thursday, Posey said that he left because he thought the position in Lawrence would help him grow professionally and it was closer to his home.

Posey also disputed the picture of School 43 as a campus in crisis. He said this school year, there hasn’t been “turmoil in the school in regards to student behavior,” suspensions were down, and the campus has been “very calm.” (Suspension numbers could not immediately be verified.) He also said that Indianapolis Public Schools provided “great support” to school staff.

Nonetheless, parents and teachers’ at the meeting Wednesday said the school has serious problems.

Ryesha Jackson, a 4th-grade teacher who has been at the school a little over a year, said there are not enough staff to help with student discipline problems. That makes it hard for educators to teach, she said.

“We have fights almost every day,” Jackson said. “I guess my question is, ‘What are we doing right now to support teachers?’”

School 43 is a neighborhood school, on the north side of the district. More than 75 percent of students there are black, and almost 70 percent are poor enough to qualify for free or reduced-price meals — about the district average.

Indianapolis Public Schools interim Superintendent Aleesia Johnson said district and school leaders would work together to develop a plan to address the urgent problems at School 43.

“But what I can’t give you right now is the plan for that help,” she said. “That takes time and coordination with the school staff.”

The district is gathering input about what school community members are looking for in a principal before posting a listing, officials said. Finalists will be interviewed by committees of parents, community members, and school and district staff. The goal is to name a new principal by April.

Also at Wednesday’s meeting was a small contingent from the IPS Community Coalition, a group that is often critical of the Indianapolis Public Schools administration, particularly the district’s partnerships with charter schools.

Michele Lorbieski, a resident from the north side who ran unsuccessfully for the Indianapolis Public Board with the support of the coalition last year, said the district cannot just rely on the next principal to fix the school.

“What I’d hoped to hear tonight was what the school district was doing to put things in place to stop this revolving door of principals,” she said.

District officials did not directly address why turnover has been so high among principals at School 43. But Brynn Kardash, a district official who recently began working with the school, said that the central office is doing more to support it this year.

School 43 was added this year to the transformation zone — an effort to help troubled schools that includes dedicated support and regular visits from a team at the central office, said Kardash, the district’s executive director of schools for the zone. Educators in the zone get additional training, extra planning time, and help analyzing student data, she said.

“The goal is to really support Ms. Ellison in work that she’s doing,” Kardash said, “which then leads to, hopefully, teachers feeling that support in the classroom.”

technical difficulties

This personalized learning program was supposed to boost math scores. It didn’t, new study finds

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
A student at I.S. 228 in Brooklyn does online work through Teach to One, a program that grew out of the iZone.

A program that Bill Gates once called “the future of math” didn’t improve state test scores at schools that adopted it, according to a new study.

The research examines Teach to One, a “personalized learning” program used in schools across 11 states and which has drawn support from a number of major funders, including the Gates Foundation, Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, and Netflix co-founder Reed Hastings. (Gates and CZI are also funders of Chalkbeat.)

At five schools in Elizabeth, New Jersey, students who used Teach to One didn’t improve any faster than similar students who didn’t use the program, even after three years. The results underscore the limited evidence for claims that such technology programs can dramatically improve student learning, even as they have become magnets for philanthropic dollars.

“The original aspirations, that Teach to One programs were going to have huge positive effects on math scores — we can rule that out with these studies,” said Jonah Rockoff, a Columbia professor who studied an earlier iteration of the program.

Teach to One says its approach is designed to help students steadily learn math skills, regardless of how unprepared or advanced they are. Students spend time on a computer as well as with a teacher and working in small groups. Students receive individualized schedules each day based on their progress, and a computer program adapts the curriculum to students’ strengths and weaknesses in the form of a “playlist.”

New Classrooms, the organization behind Teach To One, suggests that the Elizabeth results aren’t the full story.

It points to a separate analysis released this week that looks at a broader group of schools — 14, from several districts — that used the program. That study shows Teach to One students making above-average gains on a test known as the MAP, which is taken on a computer with questions changing as students answer correctly or incorrectly.

New Classrooms co-founder Joel Rose suggested in a statement that those computer-adaptive tests capture something that state tests can miss: students’ progress.

“What seems to be emerging is a real tension in math between approaches focused on long-term academic growth and state accountability systems,” he said.

Rockoff said there might be something to New Classroom’s argument that the study using adaptive test is better able to showcase students’ gains. “If [students] are at a grade four level but they’re in grade six, teaching them grade four material is going to hurt them on the state test,” he said.

But the author of the second study, Jesse Margolis, and a number of other researchers who spoke to Chalkbeat note that it cannot show whether Teach to One caused any of the students’ gains, though — a major limitation.

“While this study cannot establish causality, it is encouraging,” Margolis wrote. (The New Jersey study is better able to establish cause and effect, but it also has limitations and does not rely on random assignment.)

The New Jersey study isn’t the first to show that Teach to One didn’t improve test scores: so did Rockoff’s 2015 report on three New York City middle schools that looked at both state and MAP tests.

One possible explanation is that Teach to One is helpful to students in some places but not others. Margolis said his study examined the same five Elizabeth schools as the Columbia study and also found minimal gains there, but that schools elsewhere seemed to see larger improvements.

Researcher John Pane of RAND, a leader in studying personalized learning, says the results are important to understanding a field with limited research to date.

“Because we have so little evidence on personalized learning,” he said, “every data point can be helpful for us to start triangulating and piecing together what works and what doesn’t work.”