The Achievement School District will not seek to take over more low-performing schools in the 2017-18 school year because of the state’s transition to its new K-12 assessment this year, district leaders said Friday.
The decision is consistent with allowances being shown by the State Department of Education over student grades and teacher evaluations due to the failed rollout of TNReady, according to the announcement by Tennessee’s school turnaround district.
“Extending flexibility to priority schools during this transition mirrors the flexibility we have offered to teachers and students,” Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said in a statement released through the ASD. “We remain committed to improving all schools as well as the work being done by the ASD …”
Under the new timetable, the next time the ASD will authorize new school charter operators will be the spring of 2017 for potential charter conversions in 2018-19. However, decisions on new school starts for previously authorized operators, grade expansion and non-academic school actions will continue and be based on operator and school performance.
“This is not a moratorium, it is a hold harmless year based on a new assessment,” the statement says.
Several state lawmakers from Memphis and school boards in both Memphis and Nashville have called for a one-year moratorium on ASD growth. The ASD operates 27 turnaround schools in Memphis and two in Nashville and will add four more in Memphis next school year.
A major issue behind calls for a moratorium was the ASD’s lackluster performance thus far in turning around struggling schools, but ASD leaders emphasized that their decision is based on the state’s transition to TNReady. That rollout has been bumpy, with network outages that prompted the state to scrap its new online assessment, and numerous delays in delivering paper-based tests to local districts.
The district also hinted toward its next destination in turning around low-performing schools: Chattanooga. Five schools were in the bottom 5 percent of schools statewide in 2014.
“In the meantime, the department and the ASD will work closely with Shelby County Schools, Metro Nashville Public Schools, and other districts with Priority schools, including Hamilton County, to continue to support and define the path forward in anticipation of a new Priority list being run in 2017,” the statement says.
Local school officials in Memphis were not immediately available to comment, but leaders in Nashville welcomed the news.
“It’s a positive first step toward a series of course corrections that need to happen with the Achievement School District. I’m glad the state is listening,” said Will Pinkston, a Nashville board member who sponsored the resolution for an ASD moratorium, approved just this week by Nashville’s school board.
Chris Henson, interim director for Nashville’s district, added that “given that this is a new test, it is appropriate to give districts the leeway to decide how to use the results for their own accountability purposes. Knowing that the TDOE will also do the same as it applies to the Achievement School District is encouraging.”
State lawmakers and education advocates in Memphis also weighed in.
“The fact that the ASD/DOE is listening and holding their 17-18 school year as a ‘hold harmless’ year is a positive step in the right direction,” said Rep. Antonio Parkinson of Memphis, another frequent ASD critic.
The Black Alliance for Educational Options, an advocacy group that has supported the ASD’s efforts and assisted in parent engagement at Memphis schools considered for takeover, praised the ASD’s decision.
“Students need adequate time to prepare for and adjust to the new TNReady assessment, and this decision will allow for that,” said Mendell Grinter, the alliance’s state director.
“Extending flexibility to priority schools during this transition mirrors the flexibility we have offered to teachers and students.”
Candice McQueen, Tennessee education commissioner
The ASD launched in 2011 and opened its first schools in 2012. It primary turnaround model is to take control of struggling schools and assign them to high-quality charter networks with the goal of turning them around within five years. Superintendent Malika Anderson has acknowledged that the goal was overly ambitious and likely will not be met. The recently released state list of schools in danger of appearing on the 2017 priority list — schools that are academically in the bottom 5 percent — shows that all but one of the six schools in the ASD’s first cohort are still in the bottom 5 percent.
The district took a major hit last December when researchers at Vanderbilt University released a study suggesting that Memphis’ low-performing schools would be better off in Shelby County Schools’ Innovation Zone, a turnaround initiative operated by the local district.
Pinkston said the state should adopt the model used by the iZone, whose test scores have outpaced the ASD cumulatively. “What Shelby County is doing works,” he said.
IZone schools remain within the local district but, like charters, have the autonomy to hire and fire staff, overhaul their curriculums, give their teachers bonuses, and add time to the school day. Its leaders have said that constant collaboration is another key to its success thus far.
The ASD’s statement said the district will focus for now on its existing schools: “While in 2017-18 the ASD will not convert additional schools, we will continue to maintain the urgency, momentum, and attention on priority schools that has been so critical to the accelerated student growth we have seen,” the statement said. “… Our students cannot afford for us to slow down.”
Corrections & Clarifications: April 15, 2016: A previous version did not include that the ASD may choose to initiate new school starts for previously approved charter operators and grade expansion. That has been added. The story also clarifies that the ASD’s decision is based on the state’s transition to TNReady, not problems associated with the assessment’s rollout.