Tennessee lawmakers grow more inclined to abandon the Achievement School District. What comes next?

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After ten years of challenging takeovers of local schools, controversial transfers to charter networks, and largely poor student outcomes, Tennessee’s Achievement School District is reportedly heading toward its demise.

Key Republicans in the GOP-controlled legislature are now admitting that the state’s ambitious yet failed school turnaround model should be replaced with a more effective strategy.

On the other hand, Democrats are pushing for laws to end the ASD, which was established under a 2010 state law to transform underperforming schools.

Senator Bo Watson, chairman of the finance committee, hinted at a shift in direction, stating, “I expect we will move in a different direction.”

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Bo Watson (Larry McCormack for )

Sen. Watson deemed the charter-focused school turnaround model as innovative but unsuccessful in Tennessee, suggesting that it’s unwise to continue investing in a program that has already cost the state over $1 billion.

However, the fate of thousands of students in Tennessee’s lowest-performing schools remains uncertain if the legislature decides to close the ASD and Governor Bill Lee approves the decision.

  • What will be the timeline for the shutdown?
  • What will happen to the ASD school communities? The district currently serves 4,600 students in 12 schools in Memphis and one in Nashville.
  • Will the state fulfill the remaining contracts with charter operators, which are set to expire by 2026?
  • What alternative statewide improvement strategy will replace the ASD for the state’s bottom 5% schools, currently numbering 95, with previous interventions showing limited success?
  • Will the U.S. Department of Education endorse this change as part of Tennessee’s compliance with the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) of 2015?

To qualify for federal education funds supporting Tennessee students and schools, the state must have a robust improvement plan for struggling schools. Since 2017, the ASD has served this purpose.

The state’s ESSA plan declares the turnaround district as the most intensive intervention for priority schools, guiding Tennessee’s K-12 accountability policies.

The 401-page plan commits Tennessee to prioritize school turnaround and has been revised multiple times.

The plan emphasizes urgency, stating, “Students can’t wait. Schools with historical underperformance and inadequate growth require state intervention.”

Brian Blackley, a spokesperson for the state education department, outlined that removing the ASD would necessitate a change in state law and an amendment to Tennessee’s ESSA plan.

Should the legislature amend the law, ESSA revisions can be implemented without requiring approval from the U.S. Department of Education, as per a department spokesperson.

While Tennessee has the flexibility to modify its educational agencies, including the ASD, revisions would still need federal approval due to the district’s central role in the state’s federal accountability plan.

This process, inclusive of public engagement, is expected to take several months.

ASD’s High Hopes and Harsh Realities

While the end of the ASD looms, its inception was filled with optimism following Tennessee’s passage of the First to the Top Act, a comprehensive educational reform package pivotal in securing a federal Race to the Top grant.

Drawing lessons from successful school turnarounds in New Orleans, Tennessee created a state-run district empowered to assume control of struggling schools and engage charter management organizations to oversee them, providing autonomy to design educational plans.

Despite setting ambitious goals for academic improvement, the ASD failed to deliver substantial gains as expected.

Depriving schools of local control did not yield better outcomes, with most ASD schools performing no better than underperforming schools without intervention.

Challenges such as high teacher turnover and community resistance compounded the ASD’s struggles, particularly in Memphis, where racial dynamics fueled opposition to the district’s intervention.

Founding superintendent Chris Barbic acknowledged underestimating the impact of generational poverty on student achievement, adding to the ASD’s difficulties.

Achievement School District Superintendent Chris Barbic visits Georgian Hills Elementary, a Memphis school that the state-run district has operated since 2013.
Chris Barbic, a former charter school leader in Texas, was the founding superintendent of Tennessee’s Achievement School District.

ASD’s Decline Over Time

The state-run district once oversaw 33 schools but has been gradually shrinking since 2016, with schools returning to their districts or transitioning to other oversight bodies based on performance criteria.

Currently, some ASD schools are in the process of returning to local control, while charter contracts for others are set to expire in the coming years.

The COVID-19 pandemic further complicated the transition process, affecting state testing and district operations.

Significant changes in school governance are reshaping educational landscapes in Memphis and beyond.

Educators and community members express concerns about the impact of these shifts on students and school staff.

Leadership turnover, academic uncertainties, and community unrest characterize the current state of educational affairs in Tennessee.

Efforts to address persistent challenges in education face hurdles.

As policymakers navigate the road ahead, key questions linger about the fate of struggling schools and their communities.

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