Achievement School District

McQueen: More school takeovers ‘most likely’ coming to Memphis and Nashville

In four years as Tennessee's education commissioner, Candice McQueen has stood by the state's Achievement School District as a school turnaround tool of last resort, even as schools absorbed by the state-run district have generally not improved thus far.

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.

PHOTO: Kayleigh Skinner
Sharon Griffin

“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.”

Here are the Memphis schools now at risk of state takeover

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.

PHOTO: Daarel Burnette
Parents, teachers and students protest in 2014 against the proposed state takeover of three Memphis schools.

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.

devos watch

Obama-era discipline rules should be scrapped, Trump school safety commission says

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.

Trump administration officials say it’s time to reverse Obama-era guidelines meant to curb suspensions and expulsions, especially for students of color.

The federal school safety commission recommends the move in a report released Tuesday, saying that efforts to address racial disparities in discipline may have made America’s schools less safe. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos is expected to rescind the guidance soon, notching a victory for the conservative campaign to link school discipline reforms with unsafe schools — a connection that remains questionable.

“One of the things that the commission was concerned with was the recurring narrative that teachers in the classroom or students in the hallway and on campus were afraid because individuals who had a history of anti-social or in some instances, aggressive, trending toward violent, behavior were left unpunished or were left unchecked,” a senior Trump administration official told reporters Tuesday. “So that is the first move that the report makes, to correct for that problem.”

The school safety commission’s 177-page report also recommends:

  • More access to mental health services for students
  • Various approaches to school safety, which could include considering “arming some specially selected and trained school personnel”
  • More training around how to prepare for an active shooter

Those conclusions come from a commission formed after a school shooter in Parkland, Florida left 17 dead in February. Chaired by DeVos and composed of just four members of President Trump’s cabinet, the commission has hosted a series of hearings and courted controversy by avoiding discussion of gun control measures.

While the report lauded states and schools using techniques such as positive behavioral interventions and supports to tackle student misbehavior, the commission stopped short of calling for more federal funding for such initiatives.

Scrapping the school discipline guidance is a particularly notable move. That guidance was issued in January 2014 by the Obama education and justice departments, and it told school leaders to seek out alternatives to suspension and other penalties that take students out of the classroom.

It also noted that black and Hispanic students were suspended much more often than other students, and that suspensions were correlated with higher dropout rates and lower academic achievement. Significant, unexplained racial disparities in discipline rates could trigger a federal review into whether a district had violated civil rights law, it warned.

To civil rights leaders, this was an effort to address racism in schools. To conservatives, it represented government overreach. In schools where suspensions were reduced without alternatives, the guidance encouraged misbehavior to go unchecked, they argued.

That argument is expanded in the safety commission’s report.

“When school leaders focus on aggregate school discipline numbers rather than the specific circumstances and conduct that underlie each matter, schools become less safe,” the report says. It cites a survey from the AASA, The School Superintendents Association, with comments like, “There is a feeling that by keeping some students in school, we are risking the safety of students.”

(AASA’s advocacy director, who praised some aspects of the report, says those comments represented a minority view.)

There’s limited research evidence that cutting back on suspensions made schools less safe, though teachers in multiple districts have reported that they have been hamstrung by new restrictions. One study in Chicago found that when the district modestly cut down on suspensions, student test scores and attendance actually rose as a result. There’s also not much known about how effective alternatives, like restorative justice, have been either.

The report also argues that guidance rests on shaky legal ground by relying on the concept of “disparate impact” — meaning policies that are neutral on their face but have varying effects on different races can be considered discriminatory.

Meanwhile, the report says, disparities in discipline rates may not have to do with discrimination at all, but “may be due to societal factors other than race.” It also says “local circumstances” may play a role in behavior differences “if students come from distressed communities and face significant trauma.”

“When there is evidence beyond a mere statistical disparity that educational programs and policies may violate the federal prohibition on racial discrimination, this Administration will act swiftly and decisively to investigate and remedy any discrimination,” it says.

The Obama-era guidance didn’t require schools to adopt specific policies, and rescinding it won’t require districts to make changes, either. But a change could influence school districts’ decisionmaking.

That’s likely to harm students of color and students with disabilities, former Obama education secretaries Arne Duncan and John King said in a statement.

“Today’s recommendation to roll back guidance that would protect students from unfair, systemic school discipline practices is beyond disheartening,” they said.

Read the entire report here:

Matt Barnum contributed reporting.

New leader

Susana Cordova named Denver superintendent, rising from student to teacher to top boss

PHOTO: AAron Ontiveroz/Denver Post
Susana Cordova, right.

Nearly 30 years after she began her career in Denver as a bilingual teacher, Susana Cordova was selected Monday as superintendent of the 92,000-student school district.

The Denver school board voted unanimously to appoint Cordova, who has served as the district’s deputy superintendent for the past two years. She will take over the top job in January.

“I’m incredibly humbled and gratified by the support from the board,” Cordova said after the vote.

While critics have said Cordova shoulders some of the blame for persistent problems in the district, including big test score gaps between students of color and white students, board members praised her for her knowledge of Denver, her experience as an educator, and her ability to, as board member Barbara O’Brien said, “talk to people on the other side of the aisle.”

Since being named a finalist for the job, “Susana was faced with a lot of controversy and she didn’t avoid the controversy, but she leaned into it,” board member Happy Haynes said.

“We all knew Susana as a deep listener,” Haynes said. “But to watch her in the community sessions, listening to each person regardless of what their concern was and whether they agreed with her or not — she listened deeply. And that’s an extraordinary attribute for a leader.”

Cordova, 52, has spent her entire career in Denver Public Schools. She has been a teacher and principal in district-run schools, and a district administrator overseeing them. A big part of her job in recent years has been helping struggling district-run schools improve.

Drew Schutz is principal at Valverde Elementary, one of the schools that got extra funding and help. Schutz said Cordova provided guidance in tangible ways, visiting Valverde several times and brainstorming strategies that could boost student learning there.

One action that stands out to him, he said, was when Cordova pitched in when he was trying to recruit parents to help with redesigning the low-performing school.

“She was out here one day — a sweltering hot day in the middle of the summer — and she was going door to door with me in the community,” Schutz said. “That was a point where I realized she was truly invested in soliciting community voice.”

Cordova is different from her predecessor, Tom Boasberg, in several ways that community members have said are important. Cordova is Latina, and she will lead a district where 55 percent of students are Hispanic. She is also a lifelong educator and a lifelong Denver resident. Cordova graduated from Denver Public Schools, and she sent her own children to schools in the district. Her son graduated and her daughter is a senior in high school.

Cordova has talked about how the education she received from the Denver Public Schools changed her life, but how some of her classmates and family members — students of color who grew up in working-class neighborhoods — faced a different outcome.

“I feel like what happened to me was more good fortune than it was a design,” Cordova said at a public forum about her candidacy last week. “My belief is we must be working intentionally to be creating equity by design and not by chance.”

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar/Chalkbeat
Susana Cordova, fourth from right, poses with the seven members of the Denver school board after they voted to appoint her superintendent.

After Monday’s vote, Cordova said she couldn’t help but think back to herself in elementary school — and how much it would have meant to 8-year-old her to know she’d one day lead the school district.

“I don’t know that I could have imagined this,” Cordova said. She added that she’s excited “to make sure the 8- and 9-year-olds sitting in our classrooms today have all the access and opportunities I had.”

The appointment of Cordova as superintendent was expected, as she was the sole finalist for the position. That put her in the hot seat, with some parents and teachers questioning whether the search, which cost the district more than $160,000, was a sham.

Board members said they intended to name multiple finalists but two candidates dropped out. Cordova has repeatedly said she would have preferred to have competition for the job so the community could be sure she was selected on her merits.

Five of the seven school board members were enthusiastic in their comments Monday about Cordova leading the district. Two others — Jennifer Bacon and Carrie Olson — were more measured. Both acknowledged community concerns. Bacon paused before casting her “aye” vote.

One of the main criticisms of Cordova is that, because of her role as a senior district official, she is partly to blame for the district’s failure to serve students of color and those from low-income families as well as it serves white students and those from wealthier families. White students regularly outperform students of color on state standardized tests.

Cordova has acknowledged those gaps and said closing them would a top priority. At last week’s forum, Cordova talked about how she believes training on bias and culturally responsive teaching should be mandatory for all teachers instead of allowing some to opt out.

Cordova’s husband’s job has also caused some to question if she should lead the district. Her husband, Eric Duran, is a banker who helps charter schools get financing for construction projects. Charter schools are publicly funded but independently run, and they are controversial because some people see them as siphoning money and students from district-run schools.

Duran’s firm, D.A. Davidson, has said it wouldn’t do business with Denver Public Schools or any of Denver’s 60 charter schools if Cordova were appointed superintendent.