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Tennessee's Statewide District Highlighted in Report

As the six Memphis schools in Tennessee's state-run Achievement School District wind down their first school year, a new report from the Fordham Institute suggests that the model could be a solution for other states looking to help low-performing campuses and improve dysfunctional school systems.

Redefining the School District in Tennessee details the history and functioning of the district, which was created to run the lowest-performing five percent of schools in the state (and does so in surprisingly vibrant prose: semicolons abound). The report was written by Nelson Smith, the former head of the National Alliance for Public Charter schools and current adviser to the National Association of Charter School Authorizers. The ASD's goal is to move those schools into the top 25 percent in the state in student proficiency.

Tennessee created the Achievement School District using $22 million from its $500 million federal Race to the Top grant, awarded in 2010. Chris Barbic, who founded YES! Prep, a network of charter schools, took the reins of the ASD in August 2011, and the district began running schools in August 2012.

Three of those schools are being run by charter operators and three others directly by the ASD, according to the report, and the ASD anticipates that about 35 schools will be under its authority by the fall of 2014. Most of those will be run by charter operators. Though schools in other cities were candidates for inclusion in the ASD, Memphis's high concentration of low-performing schools made it a natural place to start, the report says. Smith says the state chose which schools would fall under the district's umbrella through a process "triggered by data but driven by human judgment."

Making changes
Schools under the ASD could be "turned around," closed, re-opened as charter schools, or "transformed," potentially through partnerships with nonprofits. The report says that for any of these models, building community trust and finding good school operators is key. Smith writes that Barbic has framed the ASD as an "investment" rather than a takeover. (This story from the New York Times touches on some of the community-engagement issues at stake here.)

Human capital is a big piece of the shift. Staff members in the ASD became state employees and left their contract with Memphis schools, and the ASD has partnered with organizations like Teach for America and Teach Plus that bring in out-of-state talent. The ASD has salary plans for teachers that include bonuses for those whose students meet achievement targets.

The report waxes poetic about the flood of teachers into New Orleans but cautions that Memphis and other cities with low-performing schools may not be able to exactly replicate such efforts:

"After the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans became a magnet for mission-driven young educators and entrepreneurs; there was a sense of romantic adventure in helping rebuild the shattered community. That cachet cannot be assumed in every community trying to turn around its schools....mayors, foundations, and school superintendents must be able to make the case for why talent should migrate to their locales, and to see that salaries and housing meet the demand," Smith writes.

I just wrote an article for Education Week about teachers in New Orleans who question the efforts to improve schools by replacing long-time teachers with folks from outside the community.

Smith writes that those looking to create similar districts must make some tradeoffs when it comes to student assignment. He writes that neighborhood preferences "give charters the opportunity to prove that they can take every child in the attendance zone and do a great job...but it waters down one of the main tenets of chartering, which is that parents should be able to choose any school in the jurisdiction that is right for their child...Choice is supposed to provide an escape hatch for parents in declining neighborhoods; but a good school serving local kids can be a step toward neighborhood revival."

Students are assigned to ASD schools by neighborhood this year in Memphis unless they opt-out.

Just what will happen if and when schools do achieve their goals is still unclear, Smith writes. Schools are supposed to have a transition plan put into place once they've met student-achievement targets for three years running, and at that point could be chartered or return to the school district, but how that will work has yet to be determined.

Students in the ASD had low scores on a formative assessment given this year, which indicates that the schools have a long way to go to reach the top 25 percent of the state and meet their goals for multiple years.

A model for others?
Smith seems optimistic about the possibilities for state-run districts. This is perhaps not surprising, as he has long worked for charter school-related organization and the state-run district opens the door for more of such schools to come into the state. But he says it is not a solution for every district, and downplays the significance of the shift in governance.

"In the long run, the real importance of the ASD will not be structural at all," he writes. "That's clearly not its main objective—radical improvement in student achievement is." He says that if the ASD succeeds, it will be significant not because of the structural changes that led to its creation, but because of the way increased autonomy for school leaders, new resources, and clear leadership have combined in the new school system.

I've written about some of the challenges that have arisen in the two other districts set up like the one in Memphis. (Smith is planning on examining the district in Michigan and a new effort in Virginia in upcoming papers.)

In Louisiana, the Recovery School District is responsible for a majority of schools in New Orleans and several in other parishes in the state, but its direct-run schools in New Orleans perform worse than charter schools in the city and than schools that are under the traditional city's school board, according to a report from the Cowen Institute at Tulane. Smith draws a contrast between the Tennessee plan and what happened in New Orleans: He says there is no plan for the state to take over an entire school district, and that its goal is not to change "governance writ large" in the state of Tennessee.

In Michigan, the Education Achievement Authority is running a number of schools in Detroit, and the results so far this school year have been mixed—there have been questions about resources, curriculum, and governance.

The Washington-based Fordham Institute recently joined with the Center for American Progress, another think tank in Washington, to publish a book on alternative governance structures for schools. State-run districts like Tennessee's were one of the options highlighted in that discussion.

Meanwhile, as Smith says in the report, other big changes are afoot in Tennessee. Memphis is set to merge with the Shelby County school district in the 2013-14 school year, but leaders in a number of towns within Shelby County are trying to prevent or avoid that merger. A different effort Smith touts, a bill that would have created a statewide charter authorizer, was recently defeated, according to Nashville Public Radio.

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