After a year with a new leader, high hopes are giving way to tension within Tennessee’s turnaround district

Sharon Griffin was seen by many as a savior when she was drafted last spring to lead Tennessee’s troubled turnaround school district.

She was the one, many believed, who could redirect the Achievement School District, which was designed to be the state’s last resort for academically struggling schools. Griffin was brought in because her no-nonsense leadership was credited with turning around other schools in Memphis.

A year later, the excitement has given way to an impasse: Griffin wants to play a bigger role in the day-to-day operations of charter schools than past leaders have. She wants charter and school leaders to improve test scores, to bolster teacher recruitment and training, and to add strong educators in the early grades. And she says schools could face consequences if they don’t improve.

But school leaders say they were promised autonomy to run their charter schools as they see fit.  They believe decisions about how to run the schools should continue to be made at the school level and worry that their district, once an ambitious experiment that set Tennessee apart, is beginning to operate just like the ones that failed their schools before.

“There was a great sense of optimism” when Griffin started, said one charter leader, whose views reflected that of five other charter school leaders who spoke with Chalkbeat. They all asked not to be named because they were afraid of damaging their relationships with the district.

“There were many, who for a long time, thought a Memphis leader would help us,” said the charter leader. “But between the new superintendent and those who have been here for a while, there are conflicting views for how we move forward.”

In exchange for autonomy, documents called charter agreements between the operators and the state gave the district power to replace any charter operator whose school was not improving academically. Despite lagging state test scores, no charter operator in the Achievement School District has ever been forced to give up a school.

But Tennessee education chief Penny Schwinn says that could change.

“I’m concerned about the performance levels of many schools in the ASD and feel an incredible sense of urgency,” Schwinn said.

"It’s like going to a physician, and I tell the physician that I’m taking my high blood pressure medicine, but when you take my blood pressure it’s too high. Either she or he is going to say, you’re not taking it, or it’s not working."

Sharon Griffin

Griffin also feels urgency to make some sweeping changes. Her team spent the last year observing the charter school organizations that run schools in the district. Now, she says, it’s time to act.

She knows that her choices could ruffle feathers, including some in the 11 charter networks that say the work has been difficult and the proposed changes aren’t the help they need.

“Change is never easy,” Griffin said. “There were a lot of conversations with [charter leaders] and me in helping me understand before we started to move the pieces in this puzzle. … But now, I mean we have to produce not only for children, but because the life of the model depends upon it.”

Accountability versus autonomy

The achievement district wasn’t designed for an emboldened leader to come in and make significant changes. It was designed to allow the superintendent some oversight but very little academic or operational control over charter leaders.

Tennessee’s turnaround district started out as the cornerstone of the state’s strategy to improve low performing schools in 2012. It was launched with the belief that if the state took over low-performing schools and gave them to outside charter organizations to run, the schools would improve under the new management.

“I think the ASD is in transition now in a lot of ways,” said Ron Zimmer, a professor of public policy at the University of Kentucky, who authored a brief last year concluding that schools in the state district are doing no better than other low-performing schools that received no state help.

"It’s our responsibility to hire, to coach and provide professional development for teachers. Support and collaboration from the district can be useful but shouldn’t overtake what we do."

charter leader

“When it started, the idea was: Get good [charter operators] and good leaders, and let them do what they do well. But now, with the results being what they are, I see why ASD leadership could want to be more involved.”

The district promised to raise the state’s lowest performing schools into the top 25% percent academically within five years. But the district hasn’t produced large academic gains. It’s struggling to attract students and retain high-quality teachers. And the local districts in Nashville and Memphis, where the schools are located, historically haven’t collaborated well with the achievement district because it took over their schools without local permission.

Related: It’s been six years since Tennessee took over its first low-performing schools. How are they doing?

The district’s original leaders now say that their vision for the district was too lofty, and that many of the charter schools were not prepared for the level of poverty in Memphis neighborhoods or the large number of students who change schools, often during the school year.

Schwinn said she is looking at schools’ progress over time, and whether the academic results are where they should be. The future of the district is ultimately the responsibility of Schwinn, who was named as Tennessee’s education commissioner in February.

“There’s cause to be concerned,” Schwinn said. “We need to look at the level of school growth year-over-year, and how we’re balancing autonomy with the amount of support to get what’s expected. It’s not an either/or. With autonomy comes heightened accountability, but I’m not sure that’s been made clear to every school over time.”

She added that she is looking at the potential of closing down charter operators not doing well and expanding charter operators that are meeting expectations.

Penny Schwinn visits Georgian Hills Achievement Elementary School as part of her March tour of Memphis’ state-run schools. (Caroline Bauman)

Schwinn’s decisions would mostly affect Memphis, which houses 28 of the 30 schools in the achievement district. Memphians had long asked for a district leader from their city, which Griffin fulfilled.

Griffin was heralded when she started at the achievement district last June as the “LeBron James” of school turnaround work. She was leaving behind a successful 25-year career with Shelby County Schools where she had spearheaded the district’s own turnaround work, the Innovation Zone, known as the iZone.

The iZone pumps about $600,000 into each school for teacher bonuses and additional resources to combat the effects of poverty. The money also allows principals to hire and keep better teachers, who cost more.

While the achievement district doesn’t have the resources of the iZone, Griffin has said she wants to revive a report card to hold the state’s charter schools accountable for improving student performance, put a certified teacher in every classroom, and make sure her strongest teachers are in pre-K through second grade.

However, unlike in a traditional school district, Griffin can’t order the 11 charter operators to make these changes. But if schools aren’t meeting expectations, Griffin and state leaders could take a school away from a charter operator and give it to another organization to run.

Some of the charter leaders Chalkbeat spoke with didn’t feel that Griffin listened to them well enough before moving forward with proposed changes. For example, several charter leaders said that Griffin and her academic team have started offering professional development for charter teachers that’s similar to courses the charter schools already are offering.

“It’s our responsibility to hire, to coach and provide professional development for teachers,” said one charter operator. “Support and collaboration from the district can be useful but shouldn’t overtake what we do.”

When asked about this, Griffin said that she was analyzing where charter schools have gaps in student achievement, such as students struggling in early literacy, and is offering professional development to fill those holes.

"The ASD was created on the premise that the individual operators would have the capacity to deliver results quickly and dramatically."

Joshua Glazer, professor at George Washington University

In English and math exams taken in 2017, not a single Achievement School District elementary, middle, or high school had more than 20% of students scoring on grade level, according to Tennessee school-level test data released last summer. Not one of the six high schools in the achievement district had more than 7% of students scoring on grade level.

Griffin said based on those results and tests she’s looked at this year, she felt that offering additional professional development, which is optional for charter teachers, was necessary.

“It’s like going to a physician, and I tell the physician that I’m taking my high blood pressure medicine, but when you take my blood pressure it’s too high,” Griffin said. “Either she or he is going to say, you’re not taking it, or it’s not working.”

Still, charter leaders told Chalkbeat that not everything centers on test scores and they feel they have made gains in difficult situations. For example, some of the achievement district charters have focused on providing quality special education services, decreasing suspensions and expulsions, and improving attendance.

Related: As Tennessee’s turnaround district tries to reduce suspensions, here’s how one school is rethinking discipline

Several charter school leaders said district leadership doesn’t understand the individual needs of their schools. Griffin has a new central office staff, a team of three who manage new district-wide positions such as school discipline and literacy coaching for teachers. The built-up central office staff is a page out of Griffin’s playbook from leading the iZone in Shelby County.

But charter operators say the central office team hasn’t spent a lot of time in their classrooms, and that they don’t have a clear vision of what the central office team is doing.

“I already have people in my school who do what they do,” one charter leader said of Griffin’s hires.

In response, Griffin said her team has spent the last school year focused on the four schools that report directly to her. She said that next school year her team will take a more active role in offering professional development and coaching for teachers in the schools run by charter organizations.

“If the results don’t yield that we’re doing the best for children, then we have to do something different,” Griffin said. “I’m not going and trying to change what’s happening in the portfolio, but if it’s not yielding the results we desire for children, we can’t continue to do it. So that means looking at hiring practices, instructional practices, culture, and climate.”

What does change look like?

Griffin said one of her big goals is to resurrect the district’s school report card which was originally implemented in 2012 to hold charter schools accountable to academic progress. The idea was simple: Use the framework to expand charter networks doing well and close charter networks that did not get the job done. But due to leadership turnover, the framework wasn’t implemented consistently.

Griffin said she was working with charter leaders to find measures that go beyond academics to hold schools accountable, such as fiscal management and keeping good teachers. But Griffin emphasized that swift academic gains are critical to the future of the district and are her chief focus.

Researchers who have watched the Achievement School District since the beginning say change could be very hard to come by. And there’s also the larger, looming question of what exactly a superintendent in a district like this one should have the authority and responsibility to do.

Students walk in a hallway past lockers at a high school in the Achievement School District. (Karen Pulfer Focht for Chalkbeat)

In a perfect version of the achievement district, the superintendent should act as more of a “facilitator” than a traditional top-down leader, said Robin Lake, the director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education and national expert on portfolio districts.

“If you’ve overseen schools personally, the temptation is always to be the person to solve the problem your schools are facing,” Lake said. “But in the end, we’ve found it is a much more sustainable and powerful endeavor if educators in the schools have the capacity and the ownership to take on their own problems.”

But Lake added that the superintendent should have a “laser-focus” on performance and that “autonomy for its own sake is not the point.”

“You get to make the decisions you feel are best for your school,” Lake said. “But in exchange, the deal is performance-based accountability. If you are not doing it well, you lose the right.”

Joshua Glazer, a professor at George Washington University who has studied charter takeovers in Tennessee, says the achievement district was built so that “the superintendent would have by design very little leverage over educational issues.”

“The ASD was created on the premise that the individual operators would have the capacity to deliver results quickly and dramatically,” Glazer said. “If you cut out the bureaucracy, hold them accountable, give them as much autonomy as you could, they would figure it out. I don’t think that assumption has beared out over the years.”

Glazer said that a key element of Griffin’s success in leading Shelby County Schools’ iZone was being able to dictate curriculums and use tests to track progress. She can’t do that in the achievement district.

Memphis Lift parents line up during a 2016 rally outside of an Achievement School District elementary school. (Laura Faith Kebede)

“Meaningful change will take voluntary cooperation from the [charter providers], and that’s not what they signed on for,” Glazer said.

In the midst of this strain between autonomy and accountability are about 10,000 students.

Eligah Sledge’s two children have attended schools in the achievement district for the last five years. His daughter just graduated from Fairly High School, run by Green Dot Public Schools under the achievement district. His son is an upcoming senior, but Sledge said he’s looking at other options this summer because of teacher and leader turnover at the school.

A part of parent advocacy group Memphis Lift, Sledge has watched the achievement district closely over the years.

“The best of both worlds – the best of schools being able to do what they need to do while still being held accountable – would be wonderful, but it’s not looking like that,” Sledge said.

“It seems like lack of stability in teachers and learning is starting to be the constant in most ASD schools. I’m going to give Griffin time to see if she can make movement, but I’m going to give as much pushback as anyone else if nothing changes.”