ASD overhaul

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

PHOTO: TN.gov
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.

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.