Review: Redefining the School District in Tennessee

Redefining the School District in TennesseeIs it time for Ohio and other states to take bolder steps toward turning around our most troubled schools and districts? There are a growing number of states that say yes, and they are leading the way in launching “recovery school districts.” The oldest and best known of these efforts is the Louisiana Recovery School District, but other states are embracing the idea: Tennessee, Michigan, and (most recently) Virginia.

Recovery school districts, simply put, are state-created entities that take responsibility for running—and turning around—individual schools that have languished academically for years while under district control. Fordham, as part of its series on school-governance alternatives and reforms, is issuing a three-part series focused on recovery school districts. The first report is on the Tennessee Achievement School District (ASD), which was seeded as part of Tennessee’s winning Race to the Top (RttT) application in January 2010.

Nelson Smith, former head of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools and long-time school-reform leader, was the perfect person to report on the history, challenges, and early successes of the Tennessee ASD. According to Smith, Tennessee’s RttT application committed the state to turning around the “bottom 5 percent” of schools, and Tennessee allocated $22 million of its $500 million RttT award to launching the Achievement School District. Support for this effort was bipartisan, and strong leadership has been key to moving it ahead. Former Democratic Governor Phil Bredesen led the charge for the RttT grant, while his Republican successor Governor Bill Haslam took ownership of the effort after his election in 2010.

Two months after taking office, according to Smith, “Haslam made the surprising choice of Kevin Huffman as the state’s new school superintendent. A top executive of Teach for America (TFA), Huffman was the first TFA alum to serve as state chief.” This bold pick of Huffman as state chief was matched by the equally bold selection of Chris Barbic as the ASD’s inaugural superintendent. Barbic had gained a national reputation as a top school fixer while leading Houston’s YES! Prep program, initially a charter-led turnaround at one site that by 2011 had grown to eleven schools serving some 7,000 students.

Barbic, according to Smith’s telling, inherited a well-defined strategy from Tennessee’s successful RttT application that included seven strands (a “how-to” RSD guide of sorts):

1.   Eligibility: A school would be a candidate for the ASD if it were either in the bottom 5 percent of Title 1 schools statewide on combined math and reading/language arts achievement or a Title 1 high school with a graduation rate of less than 60 percent.

2.   Governance: Eligible schools would be pulled out of their home districts and placed under ASD authority. Barbic’s office would have “complete decision-making authority,” and targeted schools would remain in the ASD for at least five years.

3.   Teachers and staff: Educators working under ASD authority would relinquish prior contract rights, be part of a new contract with the ASD, and become state employees. The plan called for only “the best teachers” in these schools to continue working in them, and many would be replaced.

4.   Partners: New talent pipelines would be created to recruit, train, and place top teaching and leadership talent into the ASD and other high-need schools. The state would also create an investment fund that could be used to incubate or scale up high-performing charter schools.

5.   Timing: The ASD officially launched in August 2011, and the first schools slated for ASD takeover were announced in February 2012 and opened in August 2012. Six schools in total are under ASD control: Three are managed directly by the ASD and three by charter operators.

6.   Models: The ASD could select among four options for schools under its jurisdiction:

  • Turnaround: new leader, new staff, and new programs;
  • Restart: reopen as an ASD authorized charter school;
  • Closure; and
  • Transformation: like a turnaround, but schools partner with outside groups.

7.   Exit Strategy: Schools that improved could, over five years, exit the ASD as an independent charter school or even return to their original school district. According to Smith, what happens to the schools that return to the district is still not clear, nor is it clear if the teachers hired for the schools under the ASD would still be the teachers under home district control.

Redefining the School District in Tennessee is must read. It offers important insights for states—Ohio included—on how it is possible to fix troubled schools and districts that have long proven incapable of fixing themselves due to broken governance and failed systems of management and operations.

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