The Tough Realities of School Turnaround in Tennessee

Tennessee is breaking ground on how it addresses its lowest-performing schools by employing both district-led (iZone) and state-led (Achievement School District) turnaround efforts. Very early results show both promise and concern—and illustrate how incredibly hard school turnarounds can be.

map of tennessee

A new analysis by Ron Zimmer and colleagues at Vanderbilt’s Peabody School of Education examines the progress to date of all Tennessee’s “priority schools”—those scoring in the lowest 5 percent in the state—in the last three years. They find that iZone schools had some sizable positive impacts on student test scores, while the effects of the ASD schools have been mainly statistically insignificant, occasionally positive, and sometimes negative depending on the subject, cohort, and academic year.

The analysis is limited by the short timeframe of the interventions (the study covers only three years of data, with only one or two years of data for some schools). It also can’t tell us what the work looks like in the schools that are making big gains and those that aren’t. But the results are of interest for several reasons.

Vanderbilt Table

Table source: Ron Zimmer et al, Evaluation of the Effect of Tennessee’s Achievement School District on Student Test Scores, Peabody School of Education, Vanderbilt University, 2015.

First, the analysis suggests that district iZones, if rigorously implemented to ensure that schools have real freedom to change and partly re-staff, and have serious attention from the district leadership, can lead to real and rapid improvements. The Shelby County iZone was able to deeply revamp underperforming schools—attracting or reassigning top principals to lead them, allowing these school leaders to bring teams of skilled teachers with them, and giving them a great deal of latitude in curriculum, length of school day, etc. They also received significant funds (~$1 million per school over three years from federal School Improvement Grants) to support them in whatever way they chose. As their schools were eligible for takeover by the ASD, they were also motivated to improve quickly. Now that the big influx of federal SIG funds has ended, the question is: will iZones be able to maintain their growth without the extra financial support?

Second, the Vanderbilt analysis sheds light on the difficult task state-run school districts and charter operators have in Tennessee. Many regarded the creation of the ASD as a bold move. Since 2012, dozens of schools have been placed in this district—a small number are run directly by the ASD and the rest by charter management organizations, including national CMOs Aspire, KIPP, and Green Dot, and local CMOs like Gestalt Community Schools and Freedom Preparatory Academy. Unlike its close cousin, the New Orleans Recovery School District, ASD schools would remain zoned to their neighborhood and to the children already attending the low-performing schools rather than be opened to lottery.

Lastly, the ASD has encouraged operators to consider “whole school” turnarounds, in addition to the more common practice of phasing in a grade at a time. About half of the ASD schools have taken the “whole school” turnaround approach. Though many charter operators prefer the grade-at-a-time approach because they can more easily establish a new school culture and carefully staff up, this approach to change is criticized by some for displacing students in higher grades, further destabilizing families and receiving schools.

The Vanderbilt study suggests that new charter operators in Tennessee may make a real difference in the coming years, but the results are not yet apparent. The challenges of whole-school turnaround mean that positive results may not happen as quickly as when operators start new schools. However, this approach is far less disruptive to families and communities, and it’s worth giving it time to see if it can work.

As we learned in our own studies on SIG, finding out what makes the difference between and within schools is very important—in the case of Tennessee turnarounds, there are policy risks from relying solely on the numbers. The coming few years will tell us a lot about whether the iZone efforts can be sustained without the extra financial support from SIG, and whether the ASD/charter partnerships will take off after a bumpy start. But what these early results show is that trying to turn around the lowest-performing schools in Tennessee is daunting work and neither the districts, the state, nor charter schools can do this alone. And that’s a lesson for all states going forward.

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