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When Arne Duncan visits Memphis, he’ll see part of his legacy as U.S. ed chief

Chuck Kennedy/The White House

When outgoing U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan tours schools in Memphis on Friday, he’ll see firsthand one of America’s battleground cities in the movement that he spearheaded to transform public education.

He’ll also reconnect with a city and state where the federal policies he’s championed during the last six years continue to have a major impact.

Duncan, who announced earlier this month that he’ll end his tenure as education chief in December, will visit Douglass K-8 Optional School and Southwest Tennessee Community College.

At Douglass, part of Shelby County Schools’ school turnaround program known as the Innovation Zone, he’s scheduled to visit a classroom and participate in a roundtable discussion with students and educators.

Creation of the iZone is just one of a bevy of intervention programs and policies initiated in Tennessee during the last five years, partly in response to the focus on improving chronically underperforming schools highlighted by the Obama administration’s Race to the Top competition, which Duncan announced with the president in 2009.

Tennessee was one of the first states to win a share of $4.35 billion in federal incentive grants for innovation and reforms in K-12 education, improving student outcomes and closing the achievement gap. At the time, Duncan praised Tennessee as a state that would “blaze the path for the future of school education reform.”

With its $500 million share of the fund, Tennessee implemented sweeping changes, including a switch to higher standards; data-driven teacher evaluations to be used for decisions around professional development, pay, firing and hiring; and a focus on improving the state’s lowest-performing schools.

And in Memphis, where the decline of U.S. manufacturing has contributed to a trail of poverty, illiteracy, truancy, crime and school dropouts, changes inspired by Race to the Top continue to have a profound effect on the public education landscape.

The iZone was just one of the tools approved by the Tennessee Department of Education to address struggling schools. It gave local districts an avenue to receive additional funding to pursue intense and expensive school turnaround models, including extended school hours, rewarding effective teachers with bonuses, and giving principals autonomy to hire teachers and rewrite curriculum.

Shelby County Schools has had significant success with the iZone since its creation in 2013 and is receiving accolades for its work. It now includes 18 schools, most of which saw gains in math and science on this year’s TCAP exams. And three schools landed on the state’s list of 2015 rewards schools, which are the state’s top 5 percent of schools for academic growth.

Memphis also serves as ground zero for Tennessee’s Achievement School District, another Race to the Top-inspired initiative that gradually is taking control of the bottom 5 percent of the state’s schools in a different turnaround model that leans on charter networks.

During his tenure at the Education Department, Duncan has enthusiastically supported charter schools, a sector that has grown steadily in Memphis and Nashville.

Last year, Duncan lauded Tennessee for changes that he said are working, based partly on the state’s strong performance on the 2013 Nation’s Report Card.

“This is simply remarkable progress we’re witnessing in the state of Tennessee,” Duncan said, one month after President Obama cited Tennessee’s K-12 reforms in his State of the Union address.

On Wednesday, the National Assessment of Education Performance issued its latest Nation’s Report Card, showing that Tennessee has held its ground while most other states saw drops in their scores.

On the eve of his trip to Tennessee, Duncan issued an enthusiastic statement about Tennessee’s latest NAEP results, even though its scores were generally stagnant.

“Four years ago, inspired by the commitment and sense of urgency among the states educators, leaders and families, I challenged Tennessee to lead the nation in growth for their students. What they’ve done since then is amazing,” he said.

“Tests are just one measure of progress, but Tennessee has become one of the small handful of fastest growing states on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Strengthening the education our students receive is some of the hardest work our communities do, and some of the most important. With improved learning goes improved possibilities in the lives and futures of our children, and the strength of our nation. For that, Tennessee deserves the gratitude of this country.”

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include Duncan’s statement issued on Thursday.

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