Why is Tennessee’s Education Commish Blasting the Achievement School District?

Earlier this week we received reports of Commissioner Candice McQueen’s unhappiness with the Achievement School District, calling its results ’embarrassing’ and basically, a waste of money.

Admittedly, anyone would be hard pressed to debate results coming out of the embattled state agency of last resort for perennially failing schools. A 15% success rate is nothing to write home about. Especially since the ASD is responsible for turning around schools almost completely filled with students of color and in poverty. The Commish’s comment were not out of line, but I think the blame has more than one owner.

The ASD is an accountability measure carved out of promises made in the effort to obtain Race To The Top funds. It takes in the bottom 5% of schools in the state and loads up the schools with extra resources and the freedom to innovate. Sadly, the magic happened in only 20 of 126 ASD schools. So, I get McQueen’s exasperation, but…

Was this just bad policy from the start? Did the remaining schools warehoused in the ASD not receive the same extra supports as those achieving expected successes?  

Looking for answers to these questions, I reached out to the commissioner’s media director. I suspect there was fallout from McQueen’s comments because I was sent the packaged response below:

The comments made in the education committee yesterday were regarding our ESSA plans for school turnaround, as ESSA allows for districts new to the Priority school list to engage in turnaround efforts before the state’s most rigorous intervention – the ASD – is an option. So, we are analyzing how districts have used state funds for turnaround efforts to date, what accountability has been in place and to what results, and the “urgency” with which we have moved to serve current priority schools. ESSA requires intervention to be based on evidence-based practices, and that is why we studied what has worked in Tennessee to see how we can replicate those schools’ success.
As the state determines the supports needed to improve schools in need of turnaround, we are specifically studying what we know has worked from our past turnaround efforts that have received School Improvement Grant (SIG) funds. To date, we have had 20 schools out of 126 Priority schools come out of the bottom 5% of schools. We have specifically done case studies on 10 of these schools – eight of which have received SIG funds with monitoring from the state, and the two schools that have exited the Priority list from earning a one-year success rate, which demonstrates remarkable growth in achievement. From these case studies, we have learned that a combination of school leadership, effective teaching with a focus on depth of instruction around standards, and services focused on non-academic supports has led to strong outcomes in these schools. On the flip side, of the over 100 schools that have not moved out of the bottom 5%, some of these schools have received significantly more state funding since SIG’s inception, but little progress has been realized. In fact, some schools have been identified for improvement since as early as 2002 under NCLB and have received various funds over the time period with district-led intervention with little to no progress.
What we can’t do as a state is support – in terms of funding and time – district interventions that don’t work. We have to learn from what is working because we know we have much more work to do and many more students that have need. As we have stated, publicly and in our ESSA plan, the ASD is a critical part of the state’s school improvement work, and we will continue to strategically use it to intervene in our lowest-performing schools. Yesterday’s comments were made ultimately to highlight we all need to do a better job of supporting all of our students. For decades, and for a variety of reasons, we have failed to ensure that every child in Tennessee has an equal chance to receive a high-quality education from their public school. We want to learn as a state how can we best intervene to change this, particularly given the limited amount of funding we have to do so and the urgency to help so many students for whom nothing yet has changed this trajectory.

Still so many questions. 

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