deeper dive

Closer look at Achievement School District’s original schools shows wide range in trajectories

PHOTO: Kyle Kurlick
A student walks through the hall of Frayser Achievement Elementary School, one of five Memphis schools directly run by Tennessee's Achievement School District.

When state test scores came out earlier this week, leaders of the Achievement School District breathed a sigh of relief: After two bumpy years in which test scores fell or stayed flat, the state-run turnaround district’s original schools posted significant gains, especially in math.

State and ASD officials said the third year of scores showed that overhauling persistently low-performing schools without displacing their students, the district’s unusual model, takes time to pay off.

But a closer analysis of test scores at the six Memphis schools that joined the district in 2012, its first year, suggests that that story is not true across the board. In fact, only three of the schools saw the proportion of students scoring “proficient” or higher in math rise since last year, and almost all saw their reading scores fall during that time.

The analysis shows that progress at the schools at the heart of the state’s effort to catapult the state’s worst schools into the top tier is uneven at best. It also underscores the fact that with attention on a tiny number of schools, outsized gains at just a few can color the picture for all.

And it provides a clear illustration of one quirk of Tennessee’s focus on student growth over performance: The schools racked up points for having fewer students score “basic,” the state’s lowest level, even as the proportion of students whose scores put them at grade level did not rise at most of them. That trend suggests that students’ skills are moving in the right direction but are still far from achieving the ASD’s lofty ambitions.

“If our students are ever going to catch up, and we’re going to close the achievement gap, then we’ve got to be growing faster than the state average,” outgoing Superintendent Chris Barbic said Wednesday. “There’s certainly still lots of work for us to do.”

Six schools — five in Memphis and one in Nashville — joined the ASD in 2012, its first year operating schools. Three of them were assigned to charter operators, while the district opted to run three others directly. All got new names, teachers and programs in an effort to break out of long histories of low performance.

Of those schools, the three that the district has run directly — all in Memphis’ Frayser neighborhood — had higher math scores this year than when the ASD took over, although only two of the schools have outpaced the state’s overall trend during that time.

“We have some really incredible gains this year in Frayser, and that’s partially what led to the 5 overall,” said Margo Roen, the ASD’s director of new schools, referring to the six schools’ combined rating from the state, the highest possible.

But all three schools that the district assigned to charter operators, privately managed but publicly funded nonprofits, had fewer students score proficient or advanced in math this year than last year, even as two had more students at those levels than in 2013.

*School joined the ASD in 2012-13, **School joined the ASD in 2013-14,***School joined the ASD in 2014-15
State data is not available for schools showing 0 percent proficient or advanced. High school scores are from Algebra 1 exams.

Reading scores declined at all six of the ASD’s original schools, although at least three schools that have been in the district for less time saw reading gains.

At Brick Church College Prep, scores fell sharply in all subjects, suggesting that something changed dramatically at the school in its third year or that high scores in the second year did not accurately reflect students’ skills at the time — or both.

*School joined the ASD in 2012-13, **School joined the ASD in 2013-14, ***School joined the ASD in 2014-15
State data is not available for schools showing 0 percent proficient or advanced. High school scores are from English 1 exams.

A policy change that State Education Commissioner Candice McQueen floated as an explanation for statewide score stumbles — a new rule requiring students with disabilities to take the same tests as other students, rather than easier versions — would have hit Brick Church especially hard. Almost a third of the school’s students have disabilities, about double the district and state average.

But Chris Reynolds, the CEO of LEAD, the charter organization that runs Brick Church, said a bigger issue was that the school had departed from the network’s prescribed curriculum. “The impact on changes in testing for special education students is very real in schools like Brick Church, but we prefer instead to focus on an effective curriculum implementation that serves all students,” he said, noting that the network had removed the school’s leader at the end of the year.

Brick Church’s experience and the uneven progress among the ASD schools is significant, according to Will Pinkston, who gave the district its name when he helped write the legislation that created it, and who now sits on Nashville’s school board. It’s not the district’s model that’s successful, he says, but the principals and teachers at the three schools with the dramatic gains.

“The structure is much less important than the personnel and the quality and the leadership in the building,” Pinkston said.

To some degree, scores at the ASD’s schools might not even be the best measure of its impact. State officials have repeatedly emphasized that the ASD has placed pressure on districts to improve schools or risk losing them.

“I certainly believe the ASD has been a positive lever for change across our state,” McQueen said Wednesday.

Indeed, Shelby County Superintendent Dorsey Hopson told Chalkbeat that he thought competition had pushed local principals to make important changes on their own.

“The ASD has created this sense of urgency that may not of been there,” Hopson said. “Principals, if they never knew before, you now see them with an extra pep in their step.  You see communities rallying around schools.”

But some local school leaders say they would have made those changes with or without the specter of ASD takeover. And the state’s efforts to improve its lowest-performing schools extended beyond the ASD’s borders, with Shelby County receiving millions of dollars in federal funds for its own schools as well. In those schools, known together as the district’s Innovation Zone, test score trends are also mixed. But more of them posted year-over-year gains, including several that bucked the state trend and saw reading scores climb.

Taken together, the scores suggest exactly what districts across the country have found and Barbic has taken to saying lately: that turning around schools with low test scores and many high-needs students is extremely difficult.

Expecting anything other than small gains each year — and potentially some setbacks — might have been unrealistic, according to Joshua Glazer, a researcher at The George Washington University studying the district.

“You want to see incremental progress,” he said. “I don’t know that it’s realistic that you’re going to see the pace of gains to put a school in the top quartile.”

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”


Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”


Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”


Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”


Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”


Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”