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New study: Tennessee model for Gov. Deal's state takeover district posts disappointing academic progress

Gov. Nathan Deal will ask Georgia voters in November to approve the Opportunity School District, a state takeover district for failing schools patterned after Tennessee’s Achievement School District. The ASD is the focus of ongoing studies by Vanderbilt University researchers, including Gary Henry, who used to evaluate HOPE and pre-k while on the faculty at Georgia State University.

The study prompted headlines today in Tennessee announcing: "Researchers Deem Tennessee’s Achievement School District Ineffective So Far," "Vanderbilt study: iZone more effective than ASD in turning around struggling schools thus far," " Study finds ASD ineffective," and " Vanderbilt study finds iZone outperforms ASD in school turnaround results."

According to Chalkbeat Tennessee: (Great story to read today if you are interested in this issue.)

Both the ASD and iZones were created when Tennessee won the federal Race to the Top grant in 2010 to improve struggling schools, among other things. Under the ASD model, low-performing schools are removed from their local districts into the ASD’s oversight, and most are placed with nonprofit charter operators to manage. Innovation Zone schools remain in 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.

In Memphis, which has the state’s highest concentration of low-performing schools, the ASD currently oversees 27 schools, and the iZone has 18. School districts in Nashville and Chattanooga operate smaller iZones as well, and the ASD also oversees two Nashville schools.

The study did not look at why the iZone schools outpaced the ASD schools in student performance. So, I asked Henry in an email what he thought.

He responded:

“It is probably a complex and nuanced story.  A big part of the picture is having operators adjust to running neighborhood schools rather than schools of choice.  Meeting the needs of students with disabilities was challenging.  Also, both student and teacher mobility played a role.  Also, providing the right balance of structure and autonomy for teachers has been challenging. Also, the operators understood that the Common Core tests were going to be implemented in Tennessee in the first and second years of operation, but implementation was delayed and the curricula didn’t match the achievement tests. We have heard lots of these potential issues but have not yet done tested the explanations empirically.  We hope to do that this spring.”

The ASD and the iZone were created to overhaul some of Tennessee’s lowest-achieving five percent of Title I schools. Dubbed priority schools, these schools had four options;  (1) placement in the ASD; (2) turnaround under the auspices of an LEA innovation zone (also known as iZone schools); (3) turnaround through one of the federal School Improvement Grant (SIG) plans; or (4) LEA-led school improvement planning processes (ESEA Flexibility Request, 2012, p. 54).

As the study notes, "Among these possible interventions, none has been bolder and, consequently, more controversial than the ASD – a new state-run school district that removes schools from their home districts and either directly manages these schools or contracts management responsibilities to a CMO partner. The ultimate goal of the ASD is to move the academic performance of schools taken over from the bottom five percent of schools to the top quartile of schools in Tennessee within five years."

The study concludes:

While there were small positive effects in math and science across all the Priority schools, the overall effects in the 26 iZone schools were consistently positive across all subjects with positive effects in each of the three local districts that operated them. In several cases, the effects of iZone schools were moderate to large in magnitude. The effects in the ASD schools were mainly statistically insignificant and occasionally significant, sometimes positive (three times) and sometimes negative (two times) depending on the subject, cohort, and academic year. Taking a positive perspective, the effects on test scores from priority schools indicates some overall progress in math and science achievement. In addition, we consistently find substantial, positive effects for iZone schools, especially in Memphis. Therefore, one could argue that the students in these schools are better off than they would have been without these reforms, especially students attending iZone schools in Memphis. From a less positive perspective, 28 of the schools (36%) that were identified as the state’s lowest performing in 2011 have not been included in either ASD or iZones. In addition, while the iZone schools have shown promising test score effects, the effect on test scores from priority schools as a whole and ASD schools, specifically, has been less than many advocates had hoped for.

In a media statement, the ASD said: "The tough work of school turnarounds take time – the study itself says it takes up to five years for the reforms to take meaningful hold."

The study itself cautions that turnaround efforts take time:

Research funded by the state of Tennessee’s Race to the Top grant from the ASD Report/10 United States Department of Education and the Walton Family Foundation suggests that it may take three to five years for reforms to take hold (Berends, Bodilly, and Kirby, 2002). Therefore, some may consider it premature to pass definitive judgment on the ASD schools or priority schools more generally as schools have been designated as priority schools for only three years and most of the ASD schools have been under the auspices of the ASD for less than three years.


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Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.