Skip to content

Does Tennessee Have a Plan To Turn Around Failing Schools? (Hint: Not Really)

February 25, 2010

Although there is a national debate about whether school turnaround is even possible, a significant part of the Race to the Top application is the section dealing with the turnaround of failing schools in a state (by the way, the first link to “The Turnaround Fallacy” and the second link, to an experts’ discussion of the issues, are both cracking good reads.  I know I recommend a lot of stuff to read on here, but if you’re going to take any suggestion in the next month or two, read these).

Here, from the Executive Summary of the RTTT application, is how the points break down:

A. State Success Factors (125 points)

(A)(1) Articulating State’s education reform agenda and LEAs’ participation in it (65 points)

(A)(2) Building strong statewide capacity to implement, scale up, and sustain proposed plans (30 points)

(A)(3) Demonstrating significant progress in raising achievement and closing gaps (30 points)

B. Standards and Assessments (70 points)

(B)(1) Developing and adopting common standards (40 points)

(B)(2) Developing and implementing common, high-quality assessments (10 points)

(B)(3) Supporting the transition to enhanced standards and high-quality assessments (20 points)

C. Data Systems to Support Instruction (47 points)

(C)(1) Fully implementing a statewide longitudinal data system (24 points)

(C)(2) Accessing and using State data (5 points)

(C)(3) Using data to improve instruction (18 points)

D. Great Teachers and Leaders (138 points)

(D)(1) Providing high-quality pathways for aspiring teachers and principals (21 points)

(D)(2) Improving teacher and principal effectiveness based on performance (58 points)

(D)(3) Ensuring equitable distribution of effective teachers and principals (25 points)

(D)(4) Improving the effectiveness of teacher and principal preparation programs (14 points)

(D)(5) Providing effective support to teachers and principals (20 points)

E. Turning Around the Lowest-Achieving Schools (50 points)

(E)(1) Intervening in the lowest-achieving schools and LEAs (10 points)

(E)(2) Turning around the lowest- achieving schools (40 points)

F. General Selection Criteria (55 points)

(F)(1) Making education funding a priority (10 points)

(F)(2) Ensuring successful conditions for high-performing charters and other innovative schools (40 points)

(F)(3) Demonstrating other significant reform conditions (5 points)

You can see two things immediately: 1) School turnaround is clearly a priority since it has its own section and 2) School turnaround is clearly NOT a huge priority since it’s 5th out of 6 in terms of the points allocated to the section.  Be that as it may, for me personally, school turnaround, by which I mean reforming (either fixing or closing/restarting) the lowest-performing schools in our state, is something that I believe Tennessee should have developed an innovative and detailed plan to address, just as I’m sure the parents and children stuck in these failing schools do as well.  Thus, the purpose of this post is to dissect Tennessee’s announced strategy for turning around the lowest-performing schools in the state.


The first part of the section (10 points) simply deals with the state’s actual authority to intervene in low achieving schools.  Since our “First to the Top” legislation created these “Achievement School Districts,” then that part is satisfied (even if we’re not going to use it).

The second part of the section (40 points) is where the meat is.  First, the state must explain how it will identify the lowest achieving schools (5 points) and, secondly articulate the strategies for turning them around (35 points).  First, a little intro from our application:

But one lesson stands out: Historically, Tennessee has not been bold enough. Although we have seen success in moving schools off the High Priority list, the reality is that far too many of our students continue to fall through the cracks. They continue to be enrolled in high schools that do not graduate a majority of their students. They continue to score at levels that are lower than many of their more privileged or non-minority peers. They continue to lack access to rigorous courses, talented teachers, and pathways to higher education. And the state continues to lack the capacity to assist these students comprehensively. The volume of schools in the accountability system prevents a laser-like focus on the most critically low-performing schools. That is why, in this application, Tennessee is proposing to turn around its persistently lowest-achieving schools through the creation of the ASD and a partnership with best-in-class non-profit organizations with strong approaches to human capital and new school formation. The ASD is designed to provide the structure and remove the barriers for more schools to reach much higher levels of performance.

Here is Tennessee’s strategy:

(1) Categorize schools into three tiers: (1) The 13 “most struggling” schools, including the 3 already under NCLB Restructuring II and 10 of the “persistently lowest achieving” schools, (2) The 18 schools under NCLB Restructuring I or Corrective Action, and (3) Any school falling under the Federal definition of “persistently lowest achieving”

(2) Let someone else do the work:

To enable the best possible reform conditions, the state will create a collaborative for the ASD, an unprecedented partnership with carefully selected non-profit organizations that can demonstrate a track record of reform in recruiting highly effective teachers or principals, working with districts and states on revamping human capital systems, creating and expanding high-quality charter schools, and paving the way for dramatic improvement in student outcomes. Given the historical poor performance of the schools in its charge, the ASD will need a massive influx of talent and capacity on all of those fronts. Instead of reinventing the wheel, Tennessee will seek out leading non-profits that already have proven they can do this work and enlist them in the ASD effort. Working individually and as a collaborative, the selected partners will commit resources, expertise, and assistance so that students and schools in Tennessee’s ASD will see rapid achievement growth. In addition, the state is committed to using other strategies described in sections D(1) and D(3) to build a pipeline of highly effective leaders and teachers for schools not served by the partners. Tennessee has embraced the idea of working closely with high-capacity non-profit education reform organizations, including the types of groups that have submitted letters of general support as seen in Appendix E-2-6.

Beginning immediately, Tennessee will conduct a national search to find a proven change leader to run the ASD, as shown in Appendix A-2-2. This person will have full authority to enact change in schools, or confer authority on school leaders or operators, while reporting directly to the commissioner. Administrative tasks — transportation, food services, utilities — may continue to be provided by the LEA at the discretion of the school leader or operator via contract.

The role of the partners: All academic activities will be overseen by the TDOE with the assistance of the non-profit human capital and charter school partners selected to assist the ASD. For example, Tennessee will enlist:

Leader pipeline organizations committed to recruiting, training, and placing 12-15 new principals in existing districts and/or the ASD.

Teacher pipeline organizations to recruit over 600 new teachers for high-priority sites, including for the ASD and rural schools, and to create new pathways for teachers to teacher licenses under new rules described in Section D(1).

A charter school investment fund to incubate and scale-up 2-3 charter management organizations in Tennessee that will have the capacity to create 14-15 new high-performing charter schools across the state, including within the ASD.

Charter management organizations or networks with the capacity to open five or more new charter schools in Memphis and Nashville within the ASD.


Here’s the short version: I think this could be an abdication of responsibility.  I know that there’s a very cogent argument saying that we should “bring in the experts” and let them do their thing, but I think that could end up being a cop-out.  Are you telling me we didn’t even try to come up with a plan to turn around failing schools?  Here’s one off the top of my head: take $100,000,000 of the money and hire 250 teachers at $100,000/yr. for four years to teach in the highest-need schools.  Create a contract that says 1) you’re held accountable for bringing up student achievement, graduation rates, etc. year-by-year, 2) you’re agreeing that the salary is only for 4 years, at which point you go back to your district salary if you stay in the district/Tennessee (+ the 4 years of experience/raises), and 3) you have your pick of positions (in some respect) after the 4 years are up.  That would, I think, get a crowd of incredible teachers, not just from Tennessee, but from a whole lot of places (see, e.g., The Equity Project, with the caveat that we have no idea whether it will actually work).  Maybe it’s a bad idea, maybe it’s unworkable, or maybe it’s a good one, but at least it’s something.

I’m a believer in public/private partnerships, but not to the extent of a complete turnover of responsibility.  It’s a shame that Tennessee doesn’t appear to have a plan to turn around it’s worst schools other than “let someone else do it.”  That’s not good enough, in my opinion.  There’s a reason that all these folks have jobs at the state level.  They’re supposed to be doing something.  You can’t just say, “My job is just to find the best private company to do this.”  What are you being paid for?  Do some of the work yourself!

6 Comments leave one →
  1. Mom permalink
    February 25, 2010 7:37 pm

    Does “outsourcing” a persistently low performing school affect a district’s status under NCLB? Is that one less school a district has to worry about?

    • February 25, 2010 8:10 pm

      It’s hard to say, but if these schools are indeed “removed” from their home districts and put into a statewide “achievement school district” (boy, I’d like to see what that “district” looks like drawn on a map), then that would probably remove them from their home districts for NCLB purposes, at least for those years that they’re in the ASD. Like I said, though, it’s hard to tell.


  1. More Support for Tennessee as an RTTT Winner « Nashville Jefferson: A Nashville Education Blog
  2. From the “Duh” Files « Nashville Jefferson: A Nashville Education Blog
  3. ESEA Reauthorization « Nashville Jefferson: A Nashville Education Blog
  4. Race to the Top Phase I Winners Announced Monday « Nashville Jefferson: A Nashville Education Blog

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

%d bloggers like this: