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Tennessee’s Achievement School District ranks high on “conditions for success”

Tennessee’s state-run Achievement School District was the only entity in the country that received top marks in every category of a national education policy center’s ranking of “conditions for success” for one strategy for managing and improving school districts.

The Center for Reinventing Public Education (CRPE), at the University of Washington, coordinates a network of school districts nationally that are working to create “portfolio school districts.” It defines a portfolio district as one that is “creating more high-quality schools regardless of provider, giving schools autonomy over staff and funding, and holding all schools accountable for performance.”

The CRPE evaluated policies in place in 19 districts around the country to see how they lined up with its “best practices” for creating a portfolio school district. Those components are: Good options and choices for all families; school autonomy; pupil-based funding for all schools; talent-seeking strategy; sources of support for schools, performance-based accountability for schools; and extensive public engagement.

Here’s the CRPE’s evaluation sheet, which breaks down those components into smaller categories. (For example, “school autonomy” includes the following survey questions: “All schools control pay. All schools control budget. All schools control curriculum choice.”)

Tennessee’s state-run district was the only one of those 19 that was ranked as a “national exemplar” in every category. Louisiana’s Recovery School District (RSD), a state-run district that runs many schools in New Orleans, was in second place, ranking as a national exemplar in every category except sources of support for schools and public engagement.

The ASD, which was created by Tennessee’s First to the Top law in 2010, was modeled after the RSD. It is currently running 16 schools: 15 in Memphis and one in Nashville. It plans to eventually be running as many as many as 50 schools, enrolling as many as 19,000 students, within the next 3 years.

The district’s goal is to take schools that are performing in the bottom 5 percent of the state and move them to the top 25 percent. Its strategy for doing so involves turning most over to charter management organizations that the state-run district will then oversee.

Metro Nashville Public Schools was also ranked in the CRPE’s list, but was not ranked so highly: It was ranked as “much work to be done” on student funding and support for schools, and as either “in progress” or “some elements in place” on every other category. 

The merged Shelby County School District was not ranked in this CRPE effort, but is in the network for 2013.

Elliot Smalley, the ASD’s chief of staff, wrote in a blog post about the ranking that “we’re taking this in stride as a piece of very helpful data and a nod to the kinds of ingredients we’ve put into the recipe…But if we’re unable to be a ‘national exemplar’ in a version of this with an 8th column—student results—this won’t matter much.”

“Now that we’re starting to create the right kind of context, what are we going to do with it?” he wrote.

The district is in its second year running schools. Its performance has been mixed so far.

For more on the history of the district, on some of its struggle to get community buy-in, and about the strategies it’s using in schools and to recruit teachers, you can check out this paper from the Fordham Institute in Washington, which suggests that the Achievement School District could be a model for other states looking to improve low-performing schools.