Education Commissioner Candice McQueen says she’ll recommend that Tennessee’s Achievement School District take over more low-performing schools in Memphis and Nashville unless the state sees “dramatic changes” this school year.
McQueen, who is stepping down at the end of the year to lead a national education group, said she will talk in the next week with the leadership of Shelby County Schools about which Memphis schools could be eligible for takeover. She already has been in communication with Superintendent Shawn Joseph of Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools.
Schools could come under state control if they have not shown significant growth on state tests and have made Tennessee’s last two priority lists of schools performing in the bottom 5 percent statewide, according to the state’s 2016 education plan, which is required under a new federal law.
“Our recommendation will be: As we go into next school year, unless we see some dramatic changes in certain schools, we will move some schools into the Achievement School District,” McQueen told Chalkbeat this week.
“Of course, we’ll look at this year’s data,” she added. “As we go into the end of the school year, we’ll have additional data that will either support or refute the decisions that need to be made.”
The revelation comes as the 6-year-old district has yet to prove itself as an effective school turnaround program — and also as a new governor prepares to take office.
The charter-reliant district generally has not raised student achievement in its 30 schools, including the first six that came under its control in 2012. Critics have called for a moratorium on expansion or even ditching the so-called ASD altogether, but McQueen and outgoing Gov. Bill Haslam have stood by the model as a valued option, albeit one of last resort for chronically underperforming schools.
Asked why people in Memphis and Nashville should have any faith in the ASD given its abysmal track record, McQueen said any decision to move a school into the state’s district will be because of a lack of confidence that the local district has a good plan “to get students ready for college and career.”
“So that can’t continue,” she said, adding that one of the most important responsibilities of the state’s next education commissioner will be to create a “sense of urgency around school improvement.”
McQueen also touted the track record of the ASD’s new superintendent, Sharon Griffin, a turnaround specialist who led Shelby County Schools’ Innovation Zone to national prominence for its academic gains at locally run Memphis schools. Griffin has been on the job since June and is putting together a strategic plan for improvement.
“We have a leader in place now that has done this work,” she said. “That expertise is very important. … We can’t fail.”
But state takeover is a years-long process, and a lot could happen to put the skids on the state pursuing its most intense intervention track with more schools in the next few years.
Lee’s administration, which takes over on Jan. 19, could rebuff McQueen’s recommendations. During his campaign, the Republican businessman said he would review the ASD’s work, and he lauded how innovations in Shelby County’s iZone are informing the state’s school improvement strategies.
Schools now on the bubble also could show enough gains to fend off a takeover, and McQueen said “that has to be taken into account in the decision-making.”
Talk of more possible takeovers sparked immediate pushback in Memphis, where the ASD’s work has been centered on schools that are primarily composed of students who are black and low-income.
Shante Avant, who chairs the Shelby County School board, said an expansion doesn’t make sense given the success of the locally led iZone and the struggles of the state-led ASD.
“We and people in the Memphis community would feel more comfortable about interventions that are helping kids grow,” Avant said.
“My question is if the Achievement School District was brought in as the intervention model and the intervention is not working, when do we begin to ask who’s going to take over the intervention model that is not working?” said Stephanie Love, another board member.
Love said the state should focus on issues like getting testing right, fully funding schools, giving teachers the resources they need, and making improvements to schools already under state control.
“There should be a pause on the ASD because the intervention model created by the state of Tennessee has been a complete failure,” she said. “This was a test experiment on black children and once again, it has failed because they know nothing about our children.”
In Nashville, a spokeswoman said the district is poised to turn things around at its own lowest-performing schools.
“We are confident that with the right resources and supports, along with the hard work that our teachers and principals are already doing, our priority schools will beat those challenges,” said spokeswoman Dawn Rutledge.
McQueen did not identify which and how many schools she’ll recommend for a potential takeover, but said it will be less than half a dozen. The state has taken control of as many as eight in one year, but the last round was in 2016 when four Memphis schools were converted to state-run charters.
“What we have learned is that focus on a smaller number of schools is needed as you’re bringing them into a completely different organizational structure,” McQueen said.
One factor would be whether an adequate pool of high-quality charter operators apply. If not, McQueen said the ASD could choose to run some schools itself, as it does now with three elementary schools in Memphis.
A spokeswoman for the state education department emphasized on Wednesday that there is no concrete timetable for ASD takeovers at this time, just discussions.
The ASD opened its first schools in 2012 and had grown to 33 schools by 2016. Currently, its portfolio includes 28 schools in Memphis and two in Nashville.
Two years ago, then-Superintendent Malika Anderson announced a one-year takeover pause due to the state’s transition to a new standardized test, and McQueen said the pause was continued as the new federal education law took effect, among other transitions with academic standards and personnel.
“But we feel like going forward for the next couple of years, if our data does not show improvement, then we would be moving schools into the ASD. And our ESSA plan supports that action,” she said of the state’s school improvement plan under the 2015 federal Every Student Succeeds Act.
Caroline Bauman, Laura Faith Kebede, and Jacinthia Jones contributed to this report.