It’s been six years since Tennessee took over its first low-performing schools. How are they doing?

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Humes Middle School is one of the original six schools taken over by the state of Tennessee in 2012.

Six years after the state took over six of Tennessee’s lowest-performing schools, all of those schools continue to struggle, new state test results show.

The state’s ambitious goal with the Achievement School District was to transform the schools that tested in the bottom 5 percent into top-performers within five years. Though the district’s founder later acknowledged the goal was too lofty, the new test results shed light on the massive challenge ahead for the schools and for Sharon Griffin, who became the district’s new leader in June.

The original six ASD schools and current operators

  • Brick Church College Prep, LEAD
  • Lester Elementary, Cornerstone Prep
  • Humes Middle School, Frayser Community Schools
  • Corning Achievement, Achievement Schools
  • Frayser Achievement, Achievement Schools
  • Westside Achievement, Frayser Community Schools

Of the schools in the original state-run district, four of the six had fewer than 10 percent of students testing at or above grade level in math or English during the 2017-2018 academic year, according to TNReady test results released last week.  Meanwhile, Cornerstone Prep Lester Elementary School in Memphis performed better than its counterparts with 11.5 percent of students at grade level in English and 20 percent of students at grade level in math. Frayser Achievement Elementary had 12 percent of students at grade level in English, but just 9 percent at grade level in math.

As a point of comparison, statewide averages for grades 3-8 had 33.9 percent of Tennessee students at grade level in English and 37.3 percent at grade level in math.

In taking over these schools back in 2012, the state handed them over to charter organizations. Five were launched in Memphis, and Brick Church College Prep was opened in Nashville. The state-run district now has 30 schools, the majority of which are in Memphis.

Search for any school within the Achievement School District below, including the original six. You can compare 2018 TNReady scores to see the percent of students scoring at/above grade level and growth scores for multiple schools. Note: The state doesn’t release data for an exam if fewer than 5 percent of students were on grade level.

The idea for the state district was originally based on the Recovery School District in Louisiana. But while the New Orleans charter-led district has seen success in boosting academic achievement, the Tennessee district was never set up for the same success, said Douglas Harris, a Tulane Professor of Economics and founder of the Education Research Alliance for New Orleans.

The Achievement School District requires its charter schools to enroll 75 percent of students from the surrounding neighborhoods. The New Orleans recovery district was open enrollment, which drives schools to compete for students, Harris told Chalkbeat. He also noted that the  Tennessee state district has yet to close charter schools that aren’t rising to the challenge of transforming underperforming schools.

“If you look at New Orleans, one of the main sources of improvement here was the takeover process,” Harris said. “Some charter operators that were initially brought in were not successful, and so the state turned those schools over to charter operators who were showing success. At least half of the improvement in New Orleans was just driven through that process.”

While four schools in the Tennessee state district have closed due to issues like under-enrollment, the state has not closed or replaced charter operators in the district due to low performance.

Harris said that after six years, the district should be seeing more fruit.

“On one hand, creating an entirely different way of governing schools does take time,” Harris said. “On the other hand, based on what we know so far in New Orleans, the ASD hasn’t been designed to succeed. They are trying to adopt a couple of pieces from New Orleans without the complementary pieces that were important to making system work as a whole.”

Here are the percentages of students scoring on or above grade level in English:

Time for improvement?

Tennessee also ran schools directly, which Harris called a mistake. Whereas most schools in the Achievement School District are run by an outside charter organization, Corning and Frayser elementaries and Westside Middle School in Memphis were initially taken over by a charter organization created by the state. (This fall, however, the state has handed off Westside to a new charter operator in the Achievement School District.)

Notably, two of the three Memphis schools that were directly taken over by the district in 2012  had some of the largest dips in student test results — Corning Achievement Elementary School and Westside Middle School.

Outgoing Gov. Bill Haslam and Education Commissioner Candice McQueen have stood by the state district, even after another year of lackluster results.

On a Wednesday visit to Georgian Hills Elementary, an Achievement district school in Memphis that’s seen some academic success, Haslam said he believes that six years in, the state district is still “growing into itself.”

“The ASD started out of nothing, and took over some of our most difficult schools,” said Haslam, who is term-limited. “We’re growing into that challenge, and I still believe it’s a good thing for the state, for Memphis, and for Shelby County.”

But Haslam also said changes were and are needed — and the biggest way the state is trying to turn the tide is through the new leadership of Sharon Griffin, the former leader of the Innovation Zone, a Shelby County Schools-led initiative to improve low-performing schools in Memphis’ traditional district. The iZone was launched in response to the state district takeovers, but has shown greater initial success at boosting scores.

Here are the percentages of students scoring on or above grade level in math:

Leadership change

Griffin recently hired a new central office team looking to boost the academic performance of all schools within the state district, and particularly the school that the state runs directly. She’s also pledged to improve the district’s relationship with its communities and retain high-quality teachers — two issues that have plagued the district.

Ron Zimmer, a professor of public policy at the University of Kentucky, has authored numerous studies on Tennessee turnaround efforts — including a brief earlier this summer concluding that schools in the state district are doing no better than other low-performing schools that received no state help.

Zimmer told Chalkbeat that an initial look at the recent school-level data backs up the brief’s grim assertion. But he also said he hopes the state gives Griffin a chance to show what she can do.

“She certainly had success in the Innovation Zone, and the ASD hasn’t matched that level of success,” said Zimmer, who has studied Griffin’s iZone efforts. “One of the things she told us while she was at the iZone was that early wins were needed to build momentum early on improving performance. She’s walking into a different situation with the ASD, there are no early wins. It’s a tall task, but she certainly deserves a chance to achieve it.”

But some Memphis residents are saying Griffin’s appointment is too little, too late. Jerry Wilson’s Frayser neighborhood in Memphis is home to nine schools in the state district, three of which are run directly by the state.

“Initially you can say it takes time, but after six or seven years, you can’t say that anymore,” said Wilson, the pastor at Faith Church Methodist Church and former Frayser Neighborhood Council president. “It is what it is. You have to say: This experiment is over and these charter schools aren’t able to manage these schools and shouldn’t be getting any more money from the state to do so. The issue has always been accountability. There isn’t ultimate accountability.”

Wilson said that Griffin has a “proven track record of turning around schools,” but that structural changes need to accompany leadership changes in the district.

Despite lagging state test scores, a bright spot for the original six Achievement School District schools are their growth scores. Student growth is measured in Tennessee on a scale of 1 to 5, with 1 being the lowest measure, through the Tennessee Value-Added Assessment System, known as TVAAS. To calculate the growth score, the state compares a student’s performance to the performance of his or her peers who have performed similarly on past assessments, according to the state.

While the Achievement School District scored in the lowest level of student growth as a district, Corning, Frayser, and Lester elementaries scored a 3, and Brick Church scored a 4.

“Turning around schools is really difficult, especially schools in some of our most challenging neighborhoods,” Haslam said. “The key thing [for the next governor] is to decide what you want to do, get the right leaders in place, and stay the course … I think we have a great leader now who is a product of Memphis schools.”

Note: This is the first time there is year-over-year TNReady data for the Achievement School District. There are no scores for the 2015-2016 school year because tests for middle and elementary schools were cancelled across the state after a series of logistical and technical challenges. And comparing the last two years of TNReady results to state tests prior to 2015 would be like comparing apples and oranges, because Tennessee moved to a new, more rigorous state test in 2015.

Graphics by Sam Park.


Memphis moves from problem child to poster child on Tennessee’s new school improvement list

PHOTO: Brad Vest/The Commercial Appeal
Memphis has been a hub of local, state, federal, and philanthropic school improvement work since Tennessee issued its first list of "priority schools" in 2012.

The city that has been the epicenter of Tennessee’s school improvement work since 2012 got encouraging news on Friday as fewer Memphis schools landed on the state’s newest list of troubled schools.

Only 45 public schools in Memphis were designated “priority schools,” compared to 57 in 2014 and 69 in 2012.

Meanwhile, more schools in Nashville, Chattanooga, and Jackson were among the 82 placed on priority status, either for being ranked academically in the state’s bottom 5 percent or having a graduation rate of less than 67 percent. They are now eligible for a share of $10 million in state grants to pay for extra resources this year — but also interventions as harsh as state takeover or closure.

Half of the schools are new to the list but won’t face takeover or closure. Those school communities will begin working with the state education department to develop district-led improvement plans, a change from previous years.

Charter schools face the most dire consequences for landing on the list if they’re authorized by local districts. In Memphis, seven will close at the end of the school year, impacting more than 1,700 students:

  • City University School Girls Preparatory
  • Du Bois Elementary of Arts Technology
  • Du Bois Middle of Arts Technology
  • Du Bois Middle of Leadership Public Policy
  • Granville T. Woods Academy of Innovation
  • Memphis Delta Preparatory
  • The Excel Center (adult education)

Two other priority-status high schools already closed their doors in May. They were operated by former city schools superintendent Willie Herenton’s W.E.B. DuBois charter network.

This was the first priority list issued under Tennessee’s new system for holding schools and districts accountable and is based mostly on student test scores from 2015-16 and 2016-17. No negative results from last school year were factored in because of emergency state legislation passed to address widespread technical problems that disrupted Tennessee’s return to online testing in the spring.

The distribution of more priority schools beyond Memphis was notable.

“Shelby County in particular has had some momentum … (but) we have other districts that have not had that same momentum,” said Education Commissioner Candice McQueen during a morning call with reporters.

She praised Shelby County Schools for “changing the landscape” in Memphis by closing at least 15 priority schools since 2012 and for creating its own Innovation Zone to improve other schools. Another catalyst, she said, was the 2012 arrival of Tennessee’s Achievement School District, which has taken over dozens of low-performing Memphis schools and assigned them to charter networks, spurring a sense of urgency.

But student gains have been better under the iZone than within the state-run district. Of the 25 priority schools absorbed by the iZone, 16 have moved off of priority status, compared to eight that have been taken over by the state. 

“When you really try and find great school leaders and great teachers, when you extend time, when you focus on professional development, and when you also focus on accountability, good things are going to happen in schools,” said Brad Leon, a Shelby County Schools strategist who supervised the iZone in its early years.

Of the 45 Memphis schools on the newest list, less than two-thirds are within Shelby County Schools, and five of those could be eligible for state takeover, according to Antonio Burt, who oversees priority school work for Tennessee’s largest district. He declined to name them.

The state Board of Education signed off on the priority list on Friday during a special meeting. The board also approved its 2018 list of “reward schools” to acknowledge a fifth of the state’s public schools for student achievement and academic growth in the last year.

Tennessee’s priority list is issued every three years, and this was the third one since 2012. But unlike with the two earlier rosters, 2018 priority status does not necessarily put a school on track for state takeover. That’s now an option of last resort as the state seeks to be more collaborative with local school leaders.

PHOTO: Ruma Kumar
Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dorsey Hopson visits classrooms and students in 2015. He’s led Tennessee’s largest district since 2013.

“Our new school improvement model takes a student-focused, evidence-based approach to tailor interventions for our priority schools,” said McQueen, who promised to work closely with school communities to provide new resources. 

Those new resources will be welcomed in Memphis, where Shelby County Schools has absorbed the cost of continuing interventions even as federal and state grants expire.

“At the end of the day, we’re very proud of the work, but we’re not satisfied,” said Superintendent Dorsey Hopson. “We’re going to keep on working.”

In Nashville, Mayor David Briley called the increase from 15 to 21 priority schools “unacceptable” and promised to make swift improvements in the state’s second largest school system.

Below is a sortable 2018 list, and you can learn more about the state’s 2018 accountability work here.

Priority schools

Struggling Tennessee schools find out Friday if they could face state intervention

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Tennessee's 2018 list of priority schools will chart the state's school improvement strategies, investments, and interventions for at least the next year. The state issued earlier priority lists in 2012 and 2014.

School communities hovering at the bottom on student achievement have been watching anxiously to see how they could fare under Tennessee’s new system for holding schools and districts accountable.

They’ll begin to find out on Friday when the Education Department releases its 2018 list of “priority schools” in Tennessee’s bottom 5 percent, the threshold for determining state investments such as extra money — and interventions as harsh as takeover and even closure.

The unveiling will come as the state Board of Education signs off on the list during a specially called meeting.

The 2018 priority list will be the state’s first in four years, as well as the first under a new accountability system developed in response to a 2015 federal education law. The roster will chart the state’s school improvement strategies, investments, and interventions for at least the next year.

Underperforming charter schools could face the toughest consequences. Those making the list will be shuttered next spring if they were authorized by local school districts. (Tennessee has state-authorized charters too, but those schools face closure only if they rank at the bottom in both 2018 and 2021.)

Calculating this year’s priority list — which initially was supposed to factor in the last three years of student test scores — has not been simple.

Because technical problems marred Tennessee’s return to online testing this spring, state lawmakers passed legislation ordering that the most recent scores can’t be used to place new schools on the priority list or move them into the state’s Achievement School District for assignment to charter networks. Instead, the newest priority schools are based mostly on student achievement from the two prior school years. However, a school on the 2014 list could potentially come off the new roster if its scores were good this year.

The legislation doesn’t mean that some repeat priority schools can’t be taken over by the state based on previous years’ test results. However, most of those are expected to continue under their current state-monitored school improvement plans. Schools that are new to the list will have to develop similar plans in collaboration with the Education Department.

READ: One state, three lists of troubled schools — another consequence of Tennessee’s testing mess

The newest priority lineup will be among a flurry of school accountability lists being released on Friday. The State Board also will sign off on “reward schools” that have achieved the highest performance or made extraordinary progress since last year, as well as a district roster that rates 145 Tennessee school systems based on a multitude of new measures under the state’s education plan as part of the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA.

You can find the list of schools at risk of making the newest priority list here.