ASD overhaul

Here’s how Tennessee’s downsized turnaround district will look — and what charter leaders are saying about it

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.

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen says Tennessee’s turnaround district can do better, more efficient work under a lean structure that encourages more teamwork among its charter and direct-run schools.

That means providing mostly the same services with half as many positions as the Achievement School District tightens its belt for the long haul.

Effective July 1, only Superintendent Malika Anderson will retain her job while the state consolidates the offices of the ASD and its Achievement Schools in Memphis. Fifty-nine positions will be impacted, and current employees are being invited to reapply for 30 jobs under the new structure unveiled last week.

The new hierarchy represents the most dramatic round of cuts since the ASD began taking over chronically low-performing schools in 2012. The cuts continue a shrinkage that began last year when the State Department of Education started absorbing some ASD operational positions after an audit revealed incidents of financial mismanagement.

The change comes as the department seeks financial stability for its most rigorous school improvement tool.

The Achievement School District was created and developed with federal Race to the Top money but has been relying on philanthropic funding since the award ran out in 2015.  

McQueen doesn’t want essential academic work dependent upon the whim of grant cycles. By streamlining the ASD’s structure, she said, the district will save $3 million annually and become solvent for the future.

“To be set up well from a financial perspective to do this work in a dynamic environment is absolutely the right work for us to do now as we go forward, even more aggressively around school improvement,” McQueen told Chalkbeat this week.

Four chiefs will report to Anderson under a structure that in some ways looks more like a traditional school district.

For the first time, the ASD will have a chief academic officer, a key position for most school systems. That person will oversee principals at each of the five schools that make up Achievement Schools, an ASD-run network in the Frayser community of Memphis. The job also will entail oversight of six academic specialists, who will work primarily with Achievement Schools, but also look for opportunities to share practices across the district’s 26 charter schools.

“This chief academic officer will be looking at what we learn across the (district) and how we can learn as a network and continue to grow,” McQueen said.

The other three lieutenants will include an executive director of external affairs, who will be charged with community relations; an executive director of operations, who will work closely with the State Department of Education on matters around accounting and human resources; and a chief performance officer, who will evaluate the district’s schools and recruit charter operators interested in turnaround work.

McQueen called the chief performance officer’s role “critical” to the process of recruiting and authorizing high-quality charter networks — and then monitoring their work.

The hierarchy is simplified somewhat from 2015 before founding Superintendent Chris Barbic left — and after the Achievement Schools had broken off to create its own central office.  

At the time, ASD leaders expected to become financially sustainable under a new $200-per-pupil fee charged to its charter operators. However, those fees have generated less revenue than projected due to declining enrollment at some of its charter schools.

Beginning this July, the ASD is changing its fee structure so that charter operators pay 2.5 percent of the state funding they receive for their students.

Charter operators reached by Chalkbeat said they don’t expect the leaner structure to significantly impact their work.

“It just didn’t send shockwaves through our office,” said Jocquell Rodgers, spokeswoman for Green Dot Public Schools Tennessee. “I just don’t see where the cuts … will affect us negatively other than the higher fee.”

PHOTO: Jaclyn Zubrzycki
Next school year, the ASD will oversee 26 charter schools and five direct-run schools.

Bob Nardo, who heads Libertas School of Memphis, said the job cuts are not a reflection of the ASD’s performance, but rather the need to regroup based on enrollment and funding.

“It’s important to keep in mind what the ASD is going through right now is essentially what Shelby County Schools has gone through in recent years,” he said. “They need just enough to do their core task, which is hold us accountable to be thoughtful and strategic to transform priority schools, and I think they have enough to do that.”

Bobby White, CEO of Frayser Community Schools, said charter operators are more self-sufficient than when they joined the ASD’s portfolio of schools.

“Now that we have three, four years under our belt, I’m confident that we’ll be able to handle those supports…,” White said.

Laura Faith Kebede and Caroline Bauman contributed to this report.

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 32.

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.