Future of Schools

Tennessee’s state-run school turnaround district poised to escape lawmakers’ intervention — again

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
The Tennessee House of Representatives is in its final week of the 2018 legislative session.

Despite blustery talk of clipping the Achievement School District’s wings this year, Tennessee’s school turnaround district appears poised to escape this legislative session unscathed, with as much support as ever among the ranks of lawmakers.

Last year, 22 bills were filed to limit or place controls on the district, which began operations in 2011 to improve Tennessee’s lowest-performing schools, most of which are in Memphis.

This year, seven bills were filed related to the state-run district, and only two appear to be still in play. Both are sponsored by Rep. Raumesh Akbari, a Memphis Democrat who managed last year to shepherd in a law that prohibits the ASD from taking over schools with high-growth test scores.

Both of Akbari’s active 2016 bills have been amended to soften the impact on the ASD.

One measure, which is headed to the House floor, originally would have prohibited the ASD from taking over a school if other schools are ranked below it. The amended bill removes references to the ASD and proposes that the state begin ranking schools according to academic performance on its priority list of lowest-performing schools.

Akbari’s second bill, which she’s scheduled to present next week in subcommittee, would require the ASD to post more information online about the charter networks that run its schools. The bill originally would have required charter operators to demonstrate certain student achievement levels before being authorized to operate another public charter school, either within the ASD or a local district.

A pragmatist, Akbari says the tougher ASD legislation will be discussed during lawmakers’ summer study sessions.

Rep. Raumesh Akbari
PHOTO: Kayleigh Skinner
Rep. Raumesh Akbari

“You have to have support … and you have to bring everyone to the table, and that takes time,” she said Thursday.

This year’s ASD-related bills ranged from a proposal to abolish the ASD to one allowing the state-run district to take over a school only if no other lower-performing school is eligible for intervention. But most have fizzled or languished in committees before being debated.

The legislative sputtering is indicative of continued support for the ASD by Gov. Bill Haslam and Education Commissioner Candice McQueen, who maintain that the state’s turnaround district is an important part of Tennessee’s multi-pronged strategy to improve low-performing schools.

It also stands in stark contrast to the angry rhetoric of last December when a significant Vanderbilt University study showed that ASD schools had shown less academic growth than other urban schools in Innovation Zones, which are turnaround programs operated by local districts. Fueling the anger were allegations that the ASD had rigged its process last fall for determining whether to proceed with interventions at low-performing Memphis schools being matched with charter operators. The confluence of events prompted Shelby County’s school board and the state legislature’s black caucus to call for a moratorium on ASD expansion until it shows consistent progress in improving student academic achievement.

No bills were filed this year to seek a moratorium, but lawmakers did file several aimed at restricting the ASD’s autonomy.

The most robust debate occurred this week in a House subcommittee when ASD supporters and critics packed a hearing room in Legislative Plaza in opposition to a bill by Rep. Bill Beck, a Nashville Democrat. The proposal would have allowed parents to halt ASD school takeovers with the signatures of 60 percent of parents at the schools in question.

Beck brought in heavy hitters — Jesse Register, former director of Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools; Sue Kessler, a principal of Hunters Lane High School in Nashville; and Mark North, an attorney — who charged that the ASD did not collaborate sufficiently with Metro Nashville when it took over a middle school last year that already had been improving on its own, which state test scores later bore out.

But they were outnumbered and overshadowed by impassioned parents who had traveled to Nashville from Memphis in support of the ASD, even though the bill in question was directed at Neely’s Bend College Prep in Beck’s district, now one of the ASD’s two schools in Nashville. Bedecked in orange T-shirts, the parents from Memphis Lift, an advocacy group started by a former ASD official and funded by a company founded by charter school supporter John Little, cheered throughout testimony from ASD Superintendent Malika Anderson and Keith Williams, a senior fellow with Tennessee’s chapter of the Black Alliance for Educational Options.

The bill ultimately was defeated on a voice vote as the debate highlighted the nuances — and sometimes inconsistencies — of some of the arguments presented.

Supporters say the ASD brings empowering choice to low-income parents. But when faced with a bill to let parents collectively choose to take back the reins of a school from the ASD, those same supporters cried foul. The ASD has only helped low-income families like their own, they argued, and its growth shouldn’t be hindered.

Historically, members of the House Education Administration & Planning subcommittee have supported “school choice” and data-backed decision-making. But when presented with data showing that the ASD opted last year to take over Neely’s Bend Middle Prep instead of lower-performing priority schools in Nashville, committee members maintained their support for the state-run district, saying it was the most effective tool for improvement.

The raucous debate likely was the last one about the ASD for this year’s legislative session, which is drawing to a close.

"We value ... the legislative process and would hate to short circuit it by predicting outcomes this early."Malika Anderson, ASD superintendent

But Anderson, who became the ASD’s chief in January, insists it’s still too early to tell, with some bills still on committee calendars and several weeks before the General Assembly adjourns. “I think that it is too early to draw any conclusions about the impact of this legislative session on the ASD,” Anderson said Thursday. “We value the meaningful, informative and mostly cooperative work that the ASD, our parents, community members and legislators are engaged in throughout the legislative process and would hate to short circuit it by predicting outcomes this early.”

Of bills that are tabled this year, many will make their way to legislative study sessions this summer, according to Rep. Bill Dunn, a Knoxville Republican who is the lead sponsor of an ASD-related bill drafted by Rep. Antonio Parkinson of Memphis. That bill would limit ASD eligibility to the state’s bottom 2.5 percent of schools instead of the bottom 5 percent.

“The bill was filed more to have a discussion,” Dunn said. “In my view, it would be better over the summer to really take a hard look at schools and see the best way to move forward.”

Charter Churn

New York City charters burn through principals faster than district schools, report finds

PHOTO: Getty Images / Spencer Platt
A charter school rally in New York City

As the principal at Renaissance Charter School, Stacey Gauthier’s job extends well beyond supervising teachers. She manages fundraising, lobbies elected officials to support charter schools, and even responds to issues raised by the teachers union.

“We are basically our own district,” she said, noting that the work of running an independent charter school can be a challenge without the infrastructure that comes with a school system or even a large charter network.

Despite that heavy workload, Gauthier has stayed in her role for 11 years, making her an outlier among charter principals. According to a first-of-its-kind report released earlier this month by the Manhattan Institute, a conservative-leaning think tank, the city’s charter schools generally churn through principals at a much higher rate than traditional district schools.

Last school year, 25 percent of the city’s charter school principals were new, more than double the turnover rate at district schools. That level of turnover represents something of a paradox: Studies show principal turnover can hurt student achievement, but research has also shown the city’s charter schools generally have higher state test scores than district schools do.

“If the research is right” about the consequences of principal turnover, said Marcus Winters, a Manhattan Institute fellow and the report’s author, “by addressing it, [charter schools] could improve even more.”

But it’s not clear why turnover is so much higher at charter schools, which also often churn through teachers at a higher rate.

One reason could be differences in student demographics. Since charter schools enroll a greater share of low-income students and students of color than district schools on average, that could make for a more challenging environment that contributes to churn. But controlling for differences in student demographics — including proportions of English learners, students with disabilities, those coming from poor families, and race — the report found no meaningful effect on turnover.

Another possible reason: Charter principals are easier to fire than district principals who typically have more union protections. A charter principal who runs a school that is seen as low performing is easier to replace, the theory goes, explaining higher levels of turnover. But the data don’t back up that theory. Even after taking into account differences in school performance as measured by school quality reports, higher turnover “was not driven by overall school performance,” Winters found.

It’s also possible charter schools are just more difficult work environments in ways that are difficult to measure, including some schools’ adoption of a “no excuses” ethos that tells educators that a student’s life circumstances should never excuse performance issues at school. (The report does not include breakdowns of individual charter schools or networks.)

James Merriman, CEO of the New York City Charter School Center, said there could be some truth to the idea that charter schools are tougher work environments, but added that some of the turnover could be related to fierce competition for leadership talent.

“There’s such a huge supply-demand imbalance for high-quality principals,” he said.

The report includes another puzzling trend — turnover in district and charter schools fluctuates significantly over time. Over the past 10 years, turnover at district schools ranged from 8.7 to 14 percent each year. At charters, turnover ranged from 7 to nearly 34 percent. Those swings meant that in two of the last 10 years, district turnover was slightly higher than it was at charters.

Winters, the report’s author, didn’t come to a firm conclusion about why the turnover rates seemed to shift significantly from year to year.

“I left this paper with more questions than answers,” he said.

Speaking Up

Letters to J.B.: Here’s what 10 Illinois educators said governor-elect Pritzker should prioritize

PHOTO: Keri Wiginton/Chicago Tribune/MCT via Getty Images

As governor-elect and national early childhood education advocate J.B. Pritzker assembles his transition team and builds out his early agenda, we asked educators to weigh in with items he should consider.

Here are 10 of their responses, which range from pleas for more staffing to more counseling and mental health services. Letters have been edited only for clarity and length. Got something to add? Use the comment section below or tell us on Twitter using #PritzkerEdu.

From: A non-profit employee who works with schools in the city and suburbs

Letter to J.B.: I work with a number of students from the City of Chicago and sadly most of them lack basic skills. Most of the students lack the ability to read and write properly, and perform below grade level. It is alarming how many students don’t have critical-thinking and analytical skills. The lack of education in low-income and minority population will hurt our city and state in years to come.

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From: A youth organizer at Morrill Elementary, a K-8 school on Chicago’s Southwest Side

Letter to J.B.: Morrill School has suffered from constant turnover due to an unstable Chicago Public Schools environment that cares more about upholding its own self-interest than the people it should be serving. We need representatives that will advocate for what communities say they need!

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From: A music teacher at a Chicago charter school

Letter to J.B.: I work at a charter school and I don’t think we are doing the best we can for our kids. Our school’s policies are too harsh and dehumanizing.

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From: A Chicago charter school social worker

Letter to J.B.: We’ve cut mental health services throughout the city and that has crippled us. Parents have a hard time getting jobs and having enough money to supply basic needs.

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From: A Chicago principal

Letter to J.B.: My school is 100 percent free- and reduced-price lunch-eligible, or low-income population. We are a middle years International Baccalaureate school. Our children were once were the lowest performing in the area and now we are a Level 1-plus school. Our school was on the closing list back in 2005 when I took over.

But now we are an investment school. Teachers are dedicated and work hard. We need funding for a new teacher to keep classes small and additional funds to purchase multiple resources to continue and strengthen overall academics. We have a vested interest in educating all of our children!

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From: A teacher at A.N. Pritzker Elementary in Chicago’s Wicker Park neighborhood

Letter to J.B.: Great kids. Great staff. No librarian. Extremely poor special education services. No substitute teachers. No time for planning. No time for anyone to provide mental health services for those in need.

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From: A teacher at Whitney Young High School on Chicago’s Near West Side

Letter to J.B.: Every teacher knows that well over 90 percent of the students with academic problems have serious problems at home and in their neighborhoods. In the suburbs, social worker and psychologist staffing levels are often five to 10 times what they are here in the city, where kids are dealing with way more challenges, not less. If you’re looking for bang for your buck, fund psychologists and social workers!

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From: A teacher in the Galesburg CUSD 205

Letter to J.B.: Our school is diverse in all definitions of the word. We have a diverse population in terms of race, money, and ability. We currently don’t have the money to keep all of the schools in our district open and are in the process of closing some of the buildings in order to get the others up to code and comfortable; many of our schools don’t even have air conditioning.

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From: A teacher at Kiefer School, a Peoria school that educates children with severe behavioral and learning challenges

Letter to J.B.: We work with students with behavioral and mental challenges who need more help getting mental health services. We’ve had children deflected from being hospitalized due to no beds being available.

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From: A teacher at Unity Junior High School in Cicero

Letter to J.B.: People often think that our school is “bad,” but the truth is, we have so many staff and students that work hard every day to bring positive change.