A new way

Tennessee considers a new approach for getting local schools to improve: working with them

PHOTO: Tajuana Cheshier
A fifth-grader reads at Aspire Coleman Elementary, a charter school in Memphis under Tennessee's Achievement School District. The state is eying another school turnaround approach for Chattanooga that would give schools charter-like autonomy but under the governance of a state-local board.

For its next experiment in how to improve struggling schools, Tennessee is taking inspiration from a model that’s shown promise in a small city in Massachusetts.

Officials are eyeing Chattanooga for their first foray into the “partnership zone” approach. The city has many low-performing schools but so far has gone untouched by the state’s school improvement efforts.

In a partnership zone, clusters of schools are essentially turned into mini-school districts that are freed from many local rules and governed jointly by local and state officials. Local leaders get to experiment the same way that charter schools can, but they continue to have a say in how their schools are run. State officials get to push for needed improvements, but they aren’t solely responsible for strong results — something that has proven elusive so far for them.

The partnership zone idea originated in Springfield, Massachusetts, where an “Empowerment Zone” is finishing its second year. There, educators and community leaders who might oppose school takeovers — or be displaced by them — have embraced the zone, which has nine schools and is set to grow. As a result, people there say, changes in schools are gaining traction.

“You want district and school staff to be bought into the work the state is also trying to do,” said Ashley Jochim, an analyst at the Center on Reinventing Public Education, which specializes in educational governance and bureaucratic reform. “In the case of Springfield, that arrangement really helped to facilitate this buy-in.”

PHOTO: Kayleigh Skinner
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen

State education officials view Chattanooga as fertile ground for Tennessee’s first zone. The city has the state’s third-highest number of “priority schools” with test scores in the bottom 5 percent; and after years of local efforts to improve the schools without significant progress, the state is obligated to step in.

Plus, the district’s five priority schools are all part of the same “feeder pattern,” so that all students end up at the same high school. That eases collaboration and avoids a peril that many school improvement efforts face: Students have a better experience at one school, only to move on to another that’s still struggling.

“To have a strategy that may only be impacting one or two schools in the short run … may not be the best strategy,” said Education Commissioner Candice McQueen.

State officials could also move the Chattanooga schools into the Achievement School District, the state’s primary school-improvement strategy since 2012. Doing so would mean the state would turn the schools over to charter operators. Local leaders could give input but have no say in final decisions about who would run the schools, and how.

McQueen plans to review both possibilities with Hamilton County school leaders on Thursday. “We are continuing to discuss which option will be most successful,” she said Tuesday, emphasizing that no decision has been made.

PHOTO: Daarel Burnette
Parents, teachers and students protest in 2014 against the proposed state takeover of three Memphis schools.

But it’s clear that McQueen is eager to avoid the turf wars that have accompanied expansions of the Achievement School District. McQueen said recently that the state is reluctant to force the model in Chattanooga — a lesson learned from angry protests that have erupted with each school takeover in Memphis, the hub of the ASD’s work.

The partnership zone model is less vulnerable to criticism, not only because local officials continue to play a role, but also because it does not require schools to replace their leaders and teachers, as has happened when schools are taken over by the Achievement School District. Plus, teachers at the schools remain part of their local unions. While local unions have joined resistance against the state-run district in Memphis and Nashville, union leaders in Springfield have backed the zone there.

“By having a culture of change where the critical mass of people feel they have a voice in what is being done and ownership in the plan, the likelihood of implementing the plan with fidelity goes up dramatically,” the head of Springfield’s teachers union told the Boston Globe this winter.

The new approach reflects a broader shift toward empowering schools and districts to improve themselves. The most successful turnaround initiative in Tennessee, Shelby County Schools’ Innovation Zone, also gives principals the freedom to try changes tailored to their schools’ needs, and more resources to make that happen.

The shift in part responds to growing evidence that top-down changes are not producing needed increases in student learning. Schools in the Achievement School District, for example, are far from showing the test score gains that officials promised.

Efforts that give schools and districts more say in how they’re overhauled are increasingly seen as stronger bets. “The philosophy we’ve had as a department is that districts that help choose their own path will have the highest chance of success,” a Colorado official told Chalkbeat earlier this year. There, some Denver schools have joined a local “innovation zone” that’s similar to the partnership zone, but without state involvement.

Education Cities, a nonprofit that lobbies for innovative governance models such as partnership zones, examined the shift in a report released this month. The report, which examined Springfield’s zone in detail, concluded that local commitment is essential to making the difference that students need.

“Just appointing different administrators to oversee a school system without making changes — big changes — to the people running the schools or the operators running the schools has not led to significant change in other places where the strategy has been tried,” said Ethan Gray, CEO of Education Cities. “The name of the game is driving power and decision-making to the school level.”

measuring up

After five years, the Tennessee-run district isn’t performing any better than low-performing schools receiving no intervention, research says

PHOTO: Anthony Lanzilote

After five years of trying to turn around low-performing schools, Tennessee’s state-run schools aren’t performing any better than schools that haven’t received any intervention, according to new research released Tuesday.

But locally controlled low-achieving districts called Innovation Zones have not only improved performance — as shown in other studies —  but have sustained those improvements over five years.

That time period is seen as a significant marker because previous research has found it can take up to five years to see improvement from school interventions. Both the state-run district and the local iZones were launched 6 years ago.

Tennessee is seen as a leader in turnaround work around the nation. The state-run district began taking over schools in 2012, saying it would vault 5 percent of the state’s 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 in Memphis and Nashville, and to partner with charter management organizations to turn them around.

But the district hasn’t produced large academic gains. It’s struggling to attract students, retain high-quality teachers, and to build a climate of collaboration among its schools, which now number 30.

The study compared Tennessee’s state-run district with other low-performing schools statewide and found that average test scores in reading, math, and science “before and after the reform is no different from the difference during the same period for comparison schools.”

“Overall, the ASD schools exhibited similar growth to comparison schools receiving no interventions.”

In a statement, Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said, “We have not seen the success in the ASD that we want, and that is something we’re addressing.”

We “took the lessons we’ve learned from both the ASD and models like the Shelby County iZone, and it’s provided a framework for a more nuanced approach to how we do school improvement in our state,” she said.

Gary Henry, a professor at Vanderbilt University and one of the researchers, said the biggest difference between Tennessee’s state-run district and others like it is that the district is “managed by charter organizations but doesn’t act like charter organizations.”

PHOTO: Chalkbeat Tennessee
This summer, GRAD Academy Memphis became the third state-run charter school to close in Memphis.

Unlike the Recovery School District in Louisiana, the Tennessee state-run district is required to serve students within its schools’ neighborhoods, Henry said. The Achievement School District sought to maintain neighborhood-based schools, where attendance is based on who is zoned to that school.

“When charter schools are based on choice, they can control entrance and exit in a way a neighborhood school can’t,” Henry said.

For example, some charters only accept students at the beginning of the school year, he said.

“In the ASD, you don’t have that competition or matching in place that may be the elements most crucial to some positive results we’ve seen in the Recovery School District,” he added.

The research brief is based on data collected from 2012 to 2017 including student and teacher demographics and student test scores from state exams and end-of-course exams.

The study is the latest in a series analyzing the state-run schools and iZones, published by researchers who have followed school turnaround efforts as part of the Tennessee Education Research Alliance, or TERA.  The research builds off of previous findings: iZone schools are improving students’ reading, math, and science test scores faster than state-run schools and low-achievement schools receiving no extra support.

Innovation zones are run by several local districts with the help of extra state funding. The model gives schools autonomy over financial, scheduling 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 24 Memphis schools in its turnaround program

Researchers compared “moderate to large” growth in iZone schools to that of other school intervention models throughout the nation, such as the School Redesign Grants model in Massachusetts and the state takeover in Lawrence Public Schools.

But Henry said that this week’s brief is the first study of its kind nationwide, and that the research comes down strongly in favor of iZone models.

“No studies across the county on turnaround have looked at long-term effects,” Henry said. “Here we see that the positive effects of the iZone are sustained, and therefore the iZone model is an evidence-based practice for school turnaround [nationwide]. If states want to adopt an iZone approach, they have the evidence to support it.”

On the other hand, Henry added, there’s also evidence that the Achievement School District’s original model isn’t producing results.

“The ASD approach of bringing in charter organizations to take over a school is not sufficient on its own to really improve student outcomes,” Henry said. “Other things need to be done in order to improve schools, such as recruiting and retaining teachers and leaders, and reducing chronic absenteeism.”

Seeking to turn its state-run district around, the Tennessee Department of Education recently hired Sharon Griffin, the former leader of the iZone schools in Memphis, to take over as chief of the district.

PHOTO: SCS
Sharon Griffin, a longtime leader at Shelby County Schools, is the next leader of the state’s turnaround district.

Griffin started in her new role this month and told Chalkbeat that re-establishing the district’s credibility with the communities it serves is her first goal, as well as fostering collaboration, which she was known for in iZone schools.

The operators of state-run 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. But the state department is banking on Griffin’s previous success to turn over a new page for the Achievement School District.

“Our ability to improve the lives of our students, as research suggests, depends on support and the ability of the adults within our schools,” Griffin said. “I’m excited for the ASD to work with local districts like Shelby County Schools to bridge the gaps together, to share best practices and professional development so regardless of where a student attends, we are meeting their needs.”

Griffin added that she’s focusing on how to better support and retain high-performing educators and leaders during her first months on the job.

The research alliance will continue to study the possible factors that may be influencing the impacts of the iZone and state-run district. According to its statement, researchers are planning to explore how much possible barriers to improvement such as teacher turnover, chronic absenteeism or principal turnover, have suppressed more positive effects of Tennessee’s turnaround interventions.

You can reach the research brief in full below:

NEXT LEADER

Here are the four candidates to be the next superintendent of the Achievement School District

PHOTO: Kyle Kurlick for Chalkbeat
Students outside a school that's part of the state-run Achievement School District.

Four candidates are in the running to become the next leader of Tennessee’s state-run turnaround district, including one who is based in Memphis.

The state Department of Education released to Chalkbeat on Wednesday the list of candidates to lead the Achievement School District. Three candidates are from outside of the state, and all four are men with experience in charters, turnaround work, or state departments of education.

One of these candidates would take the helm following the September resignation of Malika Anderson, the district’s second superintendent since it launched in 2012 with the goal to transform Tennessee’s lowest-performing schools by taking over district schools and replacing them with charter organizations. Anderson was hand-picked by Chris Barbic, the district’s founding superintendent, following his departure in 2015.

The new superintendent would oversee 30 schools — the majority of which are run by charter organizations in Memphis — at a time when the Achievement School District has much less authority than when it started under Barbic.

Now the district is considered a tool of last resort under the state’s new education plan unveiled last year. Under-enrollment continues to plague many of its schools and was a big factor in the decisions of four charter operators to close their schools or exit the district.

Here are the candidates, and what we know about their education backgrounds so far:

Keith Sanders, former chief officer of school turnaround at the Delaware Department of Education. Sanders currently runs a consulting group bearing his name in Memphis.

Sanders led turnaround efforts for Delaware’s state department from 2012-2014. He helped to run the state’s Partnership Zone, which launched in 2011 as an effort to boost Delaware’s lowest-performing schools. (Tennessee is embarking on its own Partnership Zone in Hamilton County.)

Sanders was a principal at Riverview Middle School in Memphis before co-founding the Miller-Mccoy Academy in New Orleans, an all-boys charter school that shuttered in 2014.

Brett Barley, deputy superintendent for student achievement with the Nevada Department of Education.

Barley is currently leading the Nevada Achievement School District, which was modeled in part after Tennessee’s turnaround district. He was previously the vice president for StudentsFirst (now named 50CAN), a political lobbying organization formed in 2010 by Michelle Rhee, the former school chancellor of Washington D.C. public schools. His career in education started with Teach For America as a fourth-grade teacher in San Jose, California.

Stephen Osborn, chief for innovation and accelerating school performance at the Rhode Island Department of Education.

Osborn has worked with the Rhode Island department since 2014 and currently oversees the department’s charter school authorization and school improvement efforts. Osborn spearheaded the creation of the Rhode Island Advanced Coursework Network, a course choice platform. He was previously an assistant superintendent with the Louisiana Department of Education and a chief operating officer with New Beginnings Charter School Network in New Orleans.

Adam Miller, executive director of the Office of Independent Education and Parental Choice at the Florida Department of Education.

Miller has overseen charter school expansion and operations at the Florida department since 2008. He also now oversees tax-credit scholarships for low-income students, scholarship programs for students with disabilities, education savings accounts, and private schools. He was previously with the Florida Developmental Disabilities Council and was the executive director of Hope Center Charter School in Jensen Beach, Florida, which focused on children with autism.

The four candidates were identified over the last three months through the help of a search firm, K-12 Search Group.

The candidates have already interviewed with “key members of the ASD, charter, and funding community in Memphis,” said Sara Gast, a state spokeswoman. That group will provide feedback to Commissioner Candice McQueen, who will then narrow the list to two final candidates, Gast said. The last phase of the process will include public meet-and-greet opportunities before McQueen names the next superintendent.