Tennessee’s state-run model for school turnaround hasn’t worked, according to new research, which also casts doubt on another locally run school-improvement program in Memphis.
The Achievement School District, or ASD, created to turn around Tennessee’s lowest-performing schools, has not generated improvements to student achievement during any of the district’s first six years, a research brief released Tuesday by the Tennessee Education Research Alliance shows.
The study also found that students in Shelby County Schools’ Innovation Zone stopped showing academic gains after the program’s first three years — a surprise to many followers who have become accustomed to hearing mostly rave reviews about the so-called iZone.
“We feel confident at this point saying that the strategy followed for the ASD hasn’t produced positive results for students we’d hoped to see,” said Gary Henry, a Vanderbilt University professor and one of the study’s researchers. “In the latter years, we see that the iZone hasn’t been as effective, which leads us to conclude these are very difficult improvements to sustain over time.”
The findings are yet another blow to the credibility of the Achievement School District, the most radical reform strategy in a state that has pioneered school turnaround work — but is at a crossroads under new Gov. Bill Lee.
“The study confirms the need to rethink the approach of the Achievement School District,” said Lee’s education commissioner, Penny Schwinn, calling for more collaborative work between the state and districts that have schools in crisis.
The state-run district took over low-performing schools in Memphis and Nashville to either operate directly or, more typically, assign to charter operators to turn them around. The initial goal was to vault struggling schools out of the state’s bottom 5% and into the top 25% academically within five years. But overall, the schools, which now number 28 in Memphis and two in Nashville, have performed no better or worse than comparable struggling schools outside of the district.
Perhaps more surprising is the faltering of the iZone, whose schools have more autonomy than others in the Memphis district, and use state dollars to extend the school day and attract the city’s most effective teachers. Early on, researchers touted student gains and successes in retaining top teachers in the iZone. But the latest research says that those promising positive impacts have slowed as more schools have been moved into the program, possibly due to high teacher turnover and the struggle to recruit top teachers as replacements.
“These results suggest that turnaround efforts which rely on restaffing schools with more effective educators may not be sustainable after multiple years, which raises the possibility that there is a limited supply of teachers who are willing to transfer to low-performing schools,” the report said.
Henry said it would be a mistake to conclude that the iZone model stopped working, however. The program’s success depends on recruiting highly effective teachers and growing funding for the schools, he said, suggesting that the district “expand its recruitment areas and consider perhaps larger financial incentives.”
Shelby County Schools Superintendent Joris Ray said the latest research reflects the challenge of scaling up a model that launched with eight schools and now numbers 23.
“Overall success is often threatened due to the amount of resources and tools not matching the expansion initiative,” said Ray, adding that “it takes intentional and sustained efforts over time by people deeply committed to children to turn around schools.”
Both initiatives launched in 2012 and continue to operate, providing researchers with ample time to track both models.
“Previous research on school reform suggests that positive effects can take up to five years to appear, elevating the importance of our six-year evaluation,” Henry said.
If iZone schools, with their bonuses meant to lure effective teachers, have struggled to sustain recruitment of high-quality teachers over time, then the Achievement School District has struggled even more when it comes to teacher talent. Over the past six years, an average of 51% of teachers in achievement schools were new to their school that year, compared to 36% of iZone teachers.
“High levels of teacher turnover may be part of the reason ASD schools have not improved student achievement,” the researchers conclude.
Other mammoth challenges for the state-run district are low student enrollment and high superintendent turnover, having just lost its third leader in four years.
But the recent departure of ASD Superintendent Sharon Griffin, a known turnaround specialist, might also present the state with an opportunity to “revisit” the original ASD model, said Lam Pham, the brief’s lead author.
The Tennessee Education Research Alliance is a partnership between Vanderbilt’s Peabody College and the Tennessee Department of Education.