News: CJ Exclusives

NCGA Considering Achievement District Plan To Help Troubled Schools

House committee on Wednesday heard about Tennessee's plan boosting lowest performing K-12 schools

School-choice advocate and former state Rep. Marcus Brandon, D-Guilford, seen here speaking before a legislative hearing in April, says some charter school operators should be concerned about excessive state regulations. (CJ photo by Barry Smith)
School-choice advocate and former state Rep. Marcus Brandon, D-Guilford, seen here speaking before a legislative hearing in April, says some charter school operators should be concerned about excessive state regulations. (CJ photo by Barry Smith)

A state House committee on Wednesday looked at some of the successes and pitfalls neighboring Tennessee’s Achievement School District has experienced as lawmakers pondered ways to turn around some of the state’s worst performing schools.

The House Select Committee on Achievement School Districts heard from Malika Anderson, Tennessee’s Achievement School District superintendent, along with Vanderbilt University professor Gary Henry and George Washington University professor Joshua Glazier.

The speakers said that the special districts, which enable the state to take over low performing schools, had shown improvement, although they cautioned against promising dramatic results and urged patience.

“This has been harder than they expected and progress has been slower than they wanted,” Glazier said.

Anderson, who spoke to the committee via Skype, said that although the Achievement School District program is a recent innovation, the state is seeing signs of progress in priority schools, Tennessee’s label for low-performing schools.

“In the few short years that the ASD has been serving priority schools, average student proficiency has increased nearly 10 percentage points,” Anderson said.

The Tennessee Achievement School District allows the state to take over low-performing schools. The district superintendent can authorize operators, including charter school management organizations, to run the schools.

“The role of the state is to provide strong vetting of operators on the front end and to have a performance framework coupled with action decisions that will hold operators accountable for student achievement,” Anderson said.

Operators receive autonomy to determine programs, staffing, use of funds, and school calendars, Anderson said.

Another part of the Tennessee reform plan is called innovation zones, or iZones, Henry said. In iZones, troubled schools remain under the jurisdiction of their local district.

Teacher turnover is a problem in many lower performing schools, Henry said, with the best teachers leaving for better environments.

To combat that, low-performing teacher contracts were not renewed in iZone schools, Henry said. “They gave a 14 percent raise on average to the high quality teachers in [iZone] schools to stay and they gave on average a 17 percent raise for teachers outside of those schools who are high quality to come into those schools.”

Henry’s research shows iZone schools delivering greater improvement than achievement schools. However, Henry said that the “iZone effect” would not have been possible without the threat of the state taking over the schools and turning them into achievement district schools.

Rep. Rob Bryan, R-Mecklenberg, who chairs the committee, said the iZone schools have an easier transition than achievement district schools.

“Certainly in year one and two, you have seen more immediate results in an iZone,” Bryan said. “But when you look at the year three results from the ASDs, they were very strong. That’s when you would expect that transition to be complete for some of those schools.”

Bryan said the achievement schools and iZone schools have a “complementary nature.”

Bryan included iZone schools in a draft of a bill the committee is mulling, possibly to be considered when the General Assembly’s short session convenes April 25.

The bill would allow the state to take over governance of up to five of the state’s lowest-performing schools. The State Board of Education would select a superintendent for the district and decide which schools would be brought into the district.

Marcus Brandon, a former Democratic state representative and current executive director of CarolinaCAN, which pushes for public school improvements and reforms, urged the committee to adopt the achievement school district bill.

“It’s not a silver bullet,” Brandon said after the meeting. “We’ve seen it work in other states and we can kind of take the lessons that they’ve had.”

Brandon said “this is all about accountability” and that he hopes the legislature will have the “political will” to adopt the reforms.