Tennessee's Achievement School District is often touted as using a "turnaround model". The term "turnaround model" is a very specific term, and is officially defined by the U.S. Department of Education. In this US DOE powerpoint presentation, take a look at Slide 9. Slide 9 lists the four models from which a school district may choose when it receives School Improvement Grant ("SIG") funds. One of the four sanctioned models is the "Turnaround Model" - the other three are "Restart Model", "Close/consolidate Model", and "Transformation Model."
For the schools that the ASD operates directly, the actual turnaround model is being applied: "Replace
principal and at least 50% of the staff, adopt new governance, and implement
or revised instructional program. This model should incorporate
interventions that take into account the recruitment, placement and development
of staff to ensure they meet student needs; schedules that increase time for
both students and staff; and appropriate social-emotional and
This year, the ASD directly operates half of the ASD schools - three of the six. Next year, the ASD (based on the current number of schools that the ASD has announced it will take over next year) will directly operate five schools out of a total of thirteen (six this year + 7 next year) - reducing that proportion to 38%.
So far, when the ASD takes over a school directly, the ASD takes over the entire school. For instance, when it took over Corning Elementary School (now, Corning Achievement Elementary School), it took over the whole school with all grades from (pre-)kindergarten through fifth grade. All of the teachers have to either re-apply to work at the same school, or they have to find another job in the system. Very few of the existing teachers re-applied for 2012-13, but the ASD has stated that of those that applied, the ASD extended offers to 75% of those teachers. Anyway, because more than half of the teachers at these schools did not return, the schools meet the official criteria for "turnaround" status.
Only one of the charter management organizations hand-picked by the ASD has agreed to operate under the "turnaround model". This year at Lester Elementary, Cornerstone Prep was only willing to take preK through third grade this year. Next year, it will take fourth, fifth, and sixth grades (6th grade being part of Lester Middle). Gordon Science and Arts Academy, operated by Gestalt, is actually a new middle school altogether, and started this year with a sixth grade only (mainly from Humes Middle). In Nashville, LEAD was only willing to take on Brick Church Middle's sixth graders. Both GSAA and LEAD will add the seventh and eight grades next year and the year after.
For next year, Aspire has agreed to operate Hanley Elementary in full, as a turnaround, and is already looking to hire 50 teachers. But Gestalt only wants kindergarteners and first graders next year at Klondike. KIPP wants preK and kindergarten at Shannon Elementary, and sixth graders at Corry Middle. Here's how Michael Kelley explains it.
So the ASD will be directly operating 38% of ASD schools. Add Aspire into the mix, and less than half (46%) of all ASD schools are actually turnaround schools.
Why could this possibly be important? Why would all of these definitions and technicalities matter?
Well, for starters, it's important to know that the state doesn't require TCAP testing until the third grade. At Klondike, Gestalt does not want any children who have been educated by the current administration, except this year's kindergarteners. At Shannon, KIPP doesn't even want this year's kindergarteners. Since TCAP testing doesn't begin until the third graders, Gestalt will not have any TCAP scores to present from Klondike Elementary to the public until the summer of 2016, after the 2015-16 school year, when this year's kindergarteners hit third grade. KIPP won't have Shannon Elementary scores until the summer 2017, after the 2016-17 school year. Granted, if students move into the Shannon or Klondike attendance zones, KIPP and Gestalt will have to take those students if they enroll. But the driver here is that KIPP and Gestalt require several years of preparation before they are willing to subject their elementary students to official, high stakes state testing.
Those ASD charter schools taking over middle schools take over one grade each year. LEAD and GSAA/Gestalt didn't get the reprieve from testing that the elementary charter schools get, but they have the opportunity to build on each year's experience, so that by 2014-15 when all three grades are tested under the charter school administration, they've had the 8th graders for all three years of middle school. Same for KIPP at Corry Middle - by the time their first eighth graders are tested in 2015-16, they will have had those eighth graders for three academic years.
By using this build-one-grade-each-year, or groups-of-grades-each-year, the charter schools are able to avoid the problem of only having a grade for one year before beginning testing. This year, Cornerstone will test its third graders - the only grade Cornerstone has to test. Next year, 2013-14, it will have to test its third, fourth, fifth, and what would have been Lester Middle sixth graders. But it will have had its third and fourth graders, half of its tested kids, for two years at that point. Gestalt has also focused on a "feeder pattern," so as of 2018-19, Gestalt will have taught this year's kindergarteners from first grade through the first year of middle school (6th grade) for six consecutive years.
So on this one, I have to give the ASD credit for fully adopting its turnaround model. ASD Superintendent Chris Barbic is willing to take the hit from the results from the high stakes state testing after teaching all of its students for only one year. I suspect that's why we're being primed for not-as-expected results in the ASD's first year. After all, they've only had the kids for one year. But they're at least willing to give their as-advertised turnaround model a go, and see how it works out.
And while we've gotten a little into the weeds above with the future academic years, and which grades are tested when, the takeaway is that almost all of the charter schools that the ASD hand-selected to take over these schools just are not willing to actually take over these schools. Really, they're only willing to take over the school's newest students. It's easy to understand why the charters would make such a request. It's less clear why the ASD would grant such a request, especially when the ASD does not grant itself the same option.
If you have a good, effective model for reform, then you want to maximize its use across the broadest base of students as possible. If you want to maximize your standardized, high stakes test scores, then you maximize the number of years you have the students before testing begins, or you maximize the number of students you've taught longest.
Ah, there it is. The numbers game.
Either the ASD is allowing its charters to "maximize" their test scores out of some sort of benevolent government action, or their charters just won't agree to the standard that the ASD has set for itself. Could a charter school negotiate for such treatment, or does the ASD offer the option before negotiations begin?
Is there anyone that doesn't want to wrangle better achievement out of the youngsters that attend schools in the bottom 5% of schools in Tennessee? Of course not. But let's clearly understand how increases in achievement are obtained, and what they cost. And let's clearly understand how the playing field is engineered to benefit some players - er, schools - more than others, and how the test scores can be used to paint the best picture possible in a way to show that "of course we were right - the turnaround model works!"
For all of this year's ASD schools - ASD or charter - we'll have at least some TCAP scores with which to evalute their effectiveness and efficiency. But that some of next year's crop won't produce TCAP scores for years - several years - is a notable change.
(It must be acknowledged that traditional public elementary schools also have the gift of time to teach the kids for four years before they are TCAP tested in third grade. The distinction is that the ASD charter schools are not actually operating a turnaround model, and because they only incrementally add grades, the model is really one of opening a new school. And it's easier to open a new school than it is to turn around an under-performing school. Again, credit to the ASD for actually attempting turnaround schools in its first year of existence.)
(It must also be acknowledged that all of the ASD schools have to take the students that are "zoned" for the existing neighborhood schools. ASD charters can't quite bring themselves to stop recruiting from other parts of MCS, but they do have to take the kids in the neighborhood. This means that as traditional public schools must, all ASD schools will deal with some of the issues with which MCS has considerable experience: truancy, a transient, mobile population where families move and students change schools, instability in family groups, and family contact information that may or may not be correct. How the ASD, and particularly their charters, deal with these issues will be telling.)