Assessing Tennessee’s Turnaround Model for Education Reform

As states around the country embrace Tennessee’s turnaround model, the experience of one Memphis high school shows policymakers about its potential and perils.

by John Buntin / September 3, 2015 0
Graduation day at Martin Luther King College Prep. (Photos by Brandon Dill)

One day this past May, Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam slipped away early from a luncheon in Memphis honoring academic high achievers to visit students at a school that had long been associated with academic failure: Frayser High School. 

It was a low-key visit -- no local press, no student assembly. Instead, Haslam was greeted at the school’s entrance by Bobby White, founder and CEO of Frayser Community Schools, the charter management organization that operates the school. White ushered Haslam down a hallway to a first-floor classroom that had been converted to a small conference room. There, four high school students awaited the governor, along with a handful of local notables, including Stephanie Love, a parent of a Frayser student and a member of the Shelby County Board of Education. Frayser Community Schools didn’t answer to Shelby County anymore. Instead, it was accountable to another person in the room, Achievement School District (ASD) Superintendent Chris Barbic.

Barbic had come to Tennessee four years ago, after establishing well-regarded charter schools in Houston. Upon arriving, he’d set an ambitious goal: moving schools that were in the bottom 5 percent in academic performance to the top quartile in five years’ time. This was year three for the ASD, and year one for Frayser High, which had been stuck in the lower ranks for years. Barbic wanted Haslam to see what a turnaround in process looked like.

Haslam also had his own reasons for visiting the high school. One year earlier in Nashville, he’d met with a group of students from a north Memphis neighborhood who were on the cusp of entering Frayser. The governor was interested to see how they were faring. “My only purpose is to see what you guys are working on, to get a flavor of that and see how things are going,” he said.

The students spoke right up. “Do you think our school is improving?” one asked.

“I do not have a strong sense of that,” Haslam replied frankly. “I am hoping to get some information on how the school is different this year than last year.”


Gov. Bill Haslam: “Our job is to find good people on the front end, go through a rigorous process of vetting and matching, and then hold them accountable.”

Another student jumped in. “Looking at the school academically, I think it has changed tremendously,” said Marteja Martin. “Last year they just gave you an A for doing the work. This year, they were really engaged. They challenged you.”

“There’s a lot more stability this year,” added Decorion Caples. “A lot more control. This year, they stay on you.” 

Things had changed for parents too, said Love. “When you walk in the office, they speak to you. ‘Hey, how are you? Can we help you with something?’ Last year, I could literally sit in the office for 15 minutes and no one would say anything to me.”

Martin had another point to make. “It’s not average,” she said, pausing to find the exact words she wanted to describe her school. “It’s ... above.”

“Got it,” said Haslam. “It’s not average. I like that.” 

In fact, Frayser High had been below average -- far below average -- for decades. Barbic believed that the old Frayser High was the kind of school that traditional systems failed. He thought the ASD could do better. Barbic, who’d been hanging back at the edge of the classroom, now stepped forward. “I am actually really excited to come to this school because it encapsulates the vision of what we are trying to do,” he told the group. “As a district, our job is not to tell Bobby [White] who to go partner with or what curriculum to adopt. Our job is to find good people on the front end, go through a rigorous process of vetting and matching, and then hold them accountable.” 

It was a concise statement of Barbic’s philosophy, one education reformers are eager to apply to public education as a whole. But was it working?

Over the course of the 2014-2015 school year, Governing, sister publication to the Center for Digital Education, has chronicled Barbic and White’s achievements and setbacks, as well as examined other models of reform, notably Shelby County’s Innovation Zone schools. Barbic began the school year with the knowledge that the ASD schools would need to make notable gains to meet his ambitious goals. This final installment in the series takes up the question of results. What, at the end of the school year, did they achieve? And at a time when numerous other states are beginning to embrace the ASD turnaround model, what should Barbic and White’s experiences in Memphis tell policymakers about its potential -- and perils? 

In June 2014, White and his new local charter organization received the keys to Frayser High. To signal the school’s new ambitions, White and his board immediately changed the school’s name to MLK College Preparatory School. Along with Principal Kimberly Hopkins-Clark and her team of administrators and teachers, most of whom had just a few years of experience, White began the difficult task of changing the school culture, which in recent years had been marred by frequent fights, poor attendance and chaotic classrooms. 

In this effort, White and Hopkins-Clark were strikingly successful. As students returned from winter break in early January 2015, both White and Hopkins-Clark were pleased with how readily they adapted to the school’s new rules. “I think we are ahead of the curve in creating an environment where learning can be sustained,” White said in the spring. 

The challenge now was to demonstrate that a change in culture could translate into real academic achievement. That was a task that fell primarily to Hopkins-Clark, who knew that a significant number of students were still reading and doing math at levels much lower than their grade levels. Addressing these deficiencies now became a top priority. Students spent approximately 40 minutes a day in their homerooms. Hopkins-Clark asked instructors to spend that time focusing on reading and math skills. 

In February, MLK College Prep students took the MAPP Assessments exam as part of an effort to chart progress in reading and math. Hopkins-Clark was pleased by what the numbers revealed. “We’ve seen a tremendous shift, where our students are growing five to 10 points a week,” she reported in the spring. If that rate of growth could be sustained, “then without a doubt, the majority of our students will grow at least a grade level or a semester grade level,” she said. 

In March, students took end-of-course benchmark tests, subject matter exams that would reflect overall proficiency levels. These were less heartening. Although a significant number of students had moved from a “below basic” level of proficiency to “basic,” movement from “basic” to “proficient” or from “basic” to “advanced” had stalled. 

Hopkins-Clark wanted students to understand where they stood on the proficiency spectrum in the key subject areas of reading, math, science and social studies. So subject area teachers were instructed to periodically display “data dashboards” on their classroom whiteboards so that students could see whether they were assessed as below basic, basic, proficient or advanced in each subject area. (To preserve anonymity, each student was given an identifying number.)

The challenge was to demonstrate that a change in culture could translate into real academic achievement.

 

As the end of the school year came into view, White and Hopkins-Clark were focused on three metrics in particular. The first was proficiency, which would be measured by end-of-course  subject matter tests. White and Hopkins-Clark were hoping to achieve double-digit growth in these areas. Doing so would delight the ASD and make it more likely that the ASD would give Frayser Community Schools permission to expand and take over a middle school in the fall.

The second important measure was the Tennessee Value-Added Assessment System (TVAAS). While end-of-course exams measured a school’s overall proficiency in a handful of subject areas, TVAAS measured individual student growth compared to other similarly ranked students over the course of a school year. Measuring how much growth individual students, classes and grades at any given school had gained or lost compared to others would help administrators and regulators determine -- at least in theory -- how effective teachers and the schools they taught in were. Schools that met their expected rate of growth earned a TVAAS score of 3. Schools whose students made the most progress in comparison to their peers earned a 5. Schools whose students lagged furthest behind their peers scored a 1.

End-of-course tests and TVAAS were the primary measures the ASD would use to assess MLK College Prep’s performance. But the third measure that was important to White and Hopkins-Clark was the American College Testing scores. The ACT focuses on subject expertise, and it’s the measure that could unlock access to college for MLK students. A score of 19 is generally considered to be the threshold for college readiness. Scholarship opportunities typically open up for students who earn scores of 21 or higher. MLK College Prep students had taken the ACT in October, and their average score was 13.8. Students would take the test a second time in April. White and Hopkins-Clark hoped to see that score rise.

Benchmark tests taken in March suggested that MLK College Prep students were lagging behind where White and Hopkins-Clark hoped they would be with subject proficiency. A cold winter had hurt: Students had missed more than a week of school due to icy conditions. To make up for lost time, White and Hopkins-Clark decided to institute Saturday morning classes for all of April and a few weeks into May. Teachers invited roughly 350 of MLK College Prep’s 500-plus students to attend. Between 150 and 170 students voluntarily attended school on Saturdays -- a strong response. “We were proud of our students,” says Hopkins-Clark. “We also received tremendous support from their parents.”

In many ways, the hard work paid off. MLK College Prep’s end-of-course scores showed progress in most subjects. Algebra 1 scores, for instance, rose by 6.7 points; English 1, 6.1 points; and English 2 -- a class taught by one of MLK College Prep’s star teachers -- by 19.9 points. Biology, the only science tested, rose by 2.6 percent. All told, the school had outpaced the state levels of growth in three of four subject areas. 

ACT scores were also positive. They had risen by 2 points, from 13.8 to 15.7. This was a significant success. However, given that the cutoff for college readiness is considered to be 19, it was also a reminder of just how far the school had to go.

Preliminary TVAAS scores, meanwhile, were a bit disappointing. They gave MLK College Prep a score of 1, meaning that compared to students who began the year with the same level of educational attainment, its students had regressed. 

White seems to have taken the results in stride. “I wanted double-digit gains in every category. That didn’t happen,” he says. “But enough of the data points showed movement that I am very encouraged and excited by where we are.”

Already White and Hopkins-Clark were preparing for the 2015-2016 school year. All but six of MLK College Prep’s teachers had indicated that they were returning for the upcoming school year. White and Hopkins-Clark had plans to boost teacher performance: An anonymous donor was allowing them to offer two years of leadership training to 10 teachers. The idea, says Hopkins-Clark, is that these 10 “can then support the other teachers in our building as mentors.” 

White and Hopkins-Clark want their students to encounter a culture of high expectations and academic excellence early, and to continue in that environment until they graduate from high school. They are planning to greatly increase students’ exposure to college, a tactic from the playbook of successful charter operators. Starting next year, beginning in the ninth grade, every student will have three exposures to college a year. 

For the graduating students, this was a moment of pride and vindication.

 

Summing up his assessment of year one, White says, “Turnaround work takes three years because of the phases. Year two is when all of the things that you put in place in year one start to become natural. [That’s where] I think we are right now. We’re ahead of schedule. That second phase will really take off and catapult us into the next stratosphere next year.”

ASD Superintendent Barbic sees reasons for cautious optimism in MLK College Prep’s test results as well. “We have to be careful not to draw too-big conclusions,” he says. “If MLK was getting a [TVAAS] level 1 three years out, I’d be concerned. But given that year one is about getting culture right, I am not.”

Barbic is also positive about MLK’s future based on intangibles he sees happening in the building -- positive collaboration, buy-in and team spirit among staff. MLK College Prep is clearly a better place than the high school had been the year before. “That, combined with early data, and I think there is a lot to be hopeful for,” he says.

The same could be said of Barbic’s view of the ASD’s overall performance, which at the end of year three is mixed. “Our hypothesis is the longer this is at work,” he says, “the better growth scores are.”

Segmenting schools by time spent in the ASD produced results consistent with that theory. Six schools had been under the ASD’s oversight for three years. Of those schools, four achieved level 4 or 5 TVAAS scores, meaning students in those schools were learning at a much faster rate than comparable students in other schools. The remaining two schools scored 1’s -- a disappointing outcome. Another eight schools had been under the ASD’s supervision for two years and their results were slightly less strong. Five achieved level 4 or 5 TVAAS scores, indicating greater than average student learning. And finally, six schools had been under the ASD for one year and their scores included one 3, one 2 and four 1’s, a weaker showing overall.

Of course, Barbic had set a goal for the ASD as a whole that was anything but modest -- moving the bottom 5 percent of schools into the top 25 percent in five years time. At the end of year three, some ASD schools were on track to make that jump. Whitney Achievement Elementary, for instance, made 30-point gains in math last year. “That’s huge,” he observes. But he also acknowledges that most schools were not faring as well. 

Overall, the ASD schools are outpacing their counterparts in math and science. Reading scores, however, continue to be a source of frustration. After increasing slightly in 2014, reading scores actually declined in 2015. “What we have learned from the last three years is that it may take a bit longer than that,” Barbic says. “It’s still the goal -- the right goal -- but not every school is going to be able to hit that mark in five years.” 

Barbic knows that if the ASD misses its original goal, some critics will interpret that as a sign of failure. Still, Barbic has no regrets about setting his sights high. “The goal has created a sense of urgency, and a sense that this was a game worth competing in, quite frankly, all across Memphis,” he says. “Everyone stepped up as a result.” 

Barbic notes that on a recent trip to Memphis, he saw an Innovation Zone (iZone) school advertisement in which the Shelby County School District touted its own plan to get its “5 percent schools” into the top 25 percent in three years time -- two years faster than the ASD. “We are competing about who can get into the top quartile faster, “ Barbic says. “That’s great.”

Barbic himself has had an especially tough school year. In September 2014, he suffered a heart attack and underwent emergency bypass surgery. Then in October 2014, the ASD was forced to contend with a backlash from elected officials, teachers and parents in several Memphis communities whose schools had been targeted for charter conversion. At the last minute, several charter school operators, including the charter management organization that Barbic himself had founded in Houston, YES Prep, unexpectedly withdrew from the process. Barbic tried to put a good face on the controversy, but the perception was that the ASD had been damaged.

Barbic spent the 2014-2015 school year not only repairing relationships in Memphis, but also working to secure his organization’s survival. During its first four years of existence, the ASD operated with federal Race to the Top dollars. But those funds ran out this summer. In order to continue to operate, Barbic had to convince state legislators to provide the ASD with a $4.5 million a year operating budget, an amount Barbic proposed to raise by levying a 2.5 percent authorizing fee on ASD students. But the legislators who seemed to have the strongest opinions about the ASD by and large wanted to stop or slow school takeovers. When the legislature convened in January, state representatives and senators filed 22 bills seeking to curtail the ASD’s operations. The appearance that opposition to the ASD was growing, however, proved to be misleading. Not only did Haslam stand by the ASD, he rallied Republican legislators to support legislation that would allow the ASD schools to offer admission to students from outside the areas they served. When the legislative session ended in April, all but two of the bills curtailing the ASD’s operations had gone down in defeat. 

The positive vote for funding doesn’t mean there’s not still significant opposition to the ASD. The ASD “was supposed to be a pretty small organ within the state department of education,” says Will Pinkston, a Nashville school board member who was an aide to then-Gov. Phil Bredesen and helped draft Tennessee’s Race to the Top application five years ago. “It was supposed to take over a dozen or so schools, establish some proof points about what works and what doesn’t, and export best practices” before returning schools to local control. What the ASD had become instead, he says, is something more like a charter school authorizer, “one that is diverting much-needed resources away from the traditional public school system.” Worse, Pinkston believes that instead of driving changes that would lead to broad improvements in public education, it’s become a substitute for change. The ASD “is not turning around anything,” he charges, and certainly not the schools with the neediest students. “It’s turning its back on them.”

Others, chief among them Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dorsey Hopson, credit the ASD with creating greater urgency around reforms. He also notes that having local leaders heading up turnaround efforts has real advantages. The performance of Shelby County’s iZone schools, which enjoy levels of autonomy similar to charter schools, proves his point, demonstrating strong growth on par with the ASD. But it isn’t just the iZone schools that have made progress. Shelby County has on the whole scored a 5 on TVAAS, indicating that district students are improving at a much faster rate than comparable students in other parts of the state. Despite a tight budget, Hopson also won a commitment from his board to expand iZone schools from 14 to 16.

In mid-July, Barbic announced that after four years he was resigning as superintendent of the ASD. In his resignation letter, he cited his need to focus on his health and family, and touted the ASD’s successes. During its tenure, the ASD has brought in 14 charter school operators to run 30 schools serving 10,000 students. In Barbic’s opinion, it prompted major interventions, most notably the Shelby County School District’s creation of iZone schools that are making a major difference in the improvement of education in the most vulnerable schools. He noted that over the past two years, student proficiency in Tennessee’s so-called priority schools -- those in the bottom 5 percent -- had grown four times faster than in nonpriority schools. “By this time next year,” he wrote, “every priority school in Tennessee will be in the ASD, in a district-led iZone or undergoing some kind of major local intervention. If we keep this up, within just a few years, chronic failure in schools will have real potential to be a thing of the past.”

Bobby White, left, and Chris Barbic, right, will be parting ways. “Within just a few years, chronic failure in schools will have real potential to be a thing of the past.” says Barbic.

 

Lawmakers in other states seem to view the ASD’s intervention as successful too. During early 2015, two states -- Arkansas and Nevada -- passed legislation to create their own versions of the Achievement School District. Georgia moved ahead with plans to offer voters a constitutional amendment to create an “opportunity school district” next year, and Missouri, South Carolina, Texas, Utah and Wisconsin are also advancing plans to move ahead with statewide charter school districts or variants of the ASD.

But Barbic worries about the ability of these states to find high-quality charter operators who can do turnaround work. He estimates that five years ago, there were eight to 10 charter organizations in the field; now that number is closer to 30. Most of these groups, however, are small startups with fewer than three schools each. As a result, they don’t have the capacity to take over schools in new markets. “If the philanthropic community will invest in them,” he says, “those numbers and capacity will grow, but none of that is going to happen in the next 24 months.” 

Despite all the enthusiasm surrounding Tennessee’s reform experiment, the ASD’s future is uncertain. Barbic has indicated that he hopes to continue to serve as the ASD superintendent until a new chief is chosen later this fall. But it is unclear whether the ASD will -- or should -- continue to operate in a semi-autonomous fashion, as it has under Barbic, or if it should become a more normal part of the state education bureaucracy. It is also unclear whether the ASD will continue to show the same appetite for taking over schools and transferring them to charter operators that it did under Barbic. 

Whatever the ASD’s future, MLK College Prep was celebrating its accomplishments on graduation day last June. It was a dignified, even solemn, occasion -- intentionally so. White and Hopkins-Clark wanted none of the rowdiness that sometimes occurs during graduations in Memphis. 

White took a quiet moment before the ceremony began to reflect on how far he had come. Many of the seniors who were graduating that day had been his students when White was the principal of Westside Middle School around the corner. Back then, several teachers told White: “Don’t send your kid to Frayser. They won’t challenge him.” 

For 30 years, Frayser High had been a dead end. Now, on graduation day, White felt optimistic. He felt as if a huge burden had been lifted. A few years ago, White had asked the community to give him the opportunity “to lead your babies and do this work the way it has never been done.” Now,  he says, “these babies -- they have done it.”

For the graduating students, this was a moment of pride and vindication. “They labeled us as numbers. They gave us a stat, when we were in the third grade, based upon our test scores, I believe. They already knew who was going to be in jail,” said valedictorian Demarro Smith.

Smith believed the graduating class had proved them wrong. He was off to the Army after graduation. Three of his classmates would join him in the military. Fifty-three of the seniors were going on to community colleges. 

And that ultimately underscores Gov. Haslam’s goals for Tennessee and its turnaround effort. “The whole income inequality issue, you see where it comes from,” he says. “It’s going to get bigger and worse unless we actively intervene here. I think public education is our last hope.” 

This article originally appeared on Governing. Throughout the 2014-2015 school year, Governing has tracked efforts to turn around one Memphis, Tenn., high school. This is the final installment in a four-part series; the other parts can be found at governing.com/frayser.