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.”

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 33.

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).”

PHOTO: TN.gov
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.