Tennessee plan examined as help for struggling schools

Rep. Rob Bryan, left, attends a May 2014 public forum on teacher pay along with Rep. Tricia Cotham and WBTV news anchor Paul Cameron. Bryan wants to create a pilot program that would allow charters to take over up to five struggling schools.
Rep. Rob Bryan, left, attends a May 2014 public forum on teacher pay along with Rep. Tricia Cotham and WBTV news anchor Paul Cameron. Bryan wants to create a pilot program that would allow charters to take over up to five struggling schools.

Education officials are watching the progress of low-performing schools in Tennessee that charter school operators took over by invitation as part of a plan to improve them.

An evaluation of those Tennessee schools Vanderbilt University researchers published in December said results were inconsistent and performance, measured by test scores, was about the same as other low-performing schools. The schools are in different cities but are all part of an Achievement School District run by a single superintendent.

But state Rep. Rob Bryan, a Charlotte Republican, who worked this year to get an Achievement School District established in North Carolina, said he was encouraged by information published by the Tennessee district itself that showed high student growth in schools that were in the program for more than a year.

Bryan said he hopes to have a study commission this winter examine his idea for creating a pilot program in North Carolina with up to five schools. He’ll try in the legislative session that begins in April to get a bill passed.

The state needs to explore new approaches to improving struggling schools, he said.

“We know we are not hitting the mark,” Bryan said. “We understand on some level we have got to be more creative, more nimble with change.”

Tennessee used money from its federal Race to the Top grant to set up the achievement districts made up of its lowest-performing schools. Charters were picked to run most schools in the new district, but the state kept control of a few of them. The state-run schools did better than the charter-operated schools, the Vanderbilt researchers said.

Tennessee also used its federal money to start something it called an “iZone,” schools that are run like charters, but where a local district is in control. The iZone schools receive extra money for academic programs and to add time to the school day.

Bryan’s proposal created a stir even though it never came to a committee vote in the legislature this year. Bryan was working behind the scenes to build support for a bill that would put five of the state’s lowest-performing schools into an achievement school district. The schools would be run by charter companies and have their own superintendent.

Bryan modified his proposal to allow for “principal turnaround” at some schools, rather than charter-company management. The districts would replace principals, who would have additional state and local money to hire staff.

“The top-of-the-line leadership is very significant,” Bryan said. The plan would allow districts “to find someone good and give them the freedom to hire.”

As evidence that the special districts work, Bryan pointed to information the Achievement School District in Tennessee published that showed that the longer schools were part of the district, the more student performance improved. The Tennessee publication focused on student growth, a measure of student year-by-year improvement, rather than the standardized scores that were the focus of the Vanderbilt researchers. Student growth in achievement district schools outpaced the statewide student growth, according to the district.

Tennessee district officials did not respond to a request for an interview.

The N.C. Association of Educators fought the idea, saying the achievement school districts have not produced the results other states wanted.

“It’s lax accountability,” said NCAE President Rodney Ellis. “It’s basically handing over the keys of our lowest performing schools to private charter school management.”

The Vanderbilt researchers found that the achievement district schools didn’t do better or worse than most other low performing schools, though the schools the state controlled did a bit better.

“Especially in large school districts, a big piece of the problem is they try to manage all their schools the same way,” Gary Henry, one of the Vanderbilt researchers, said of the charter companies. The charter companies also had difficulty adjusting to teaching special needs students, he said.

Henry used to work at UNC-Chapel Hill and was part of the team that evaluated North Carolina’s use of its Race to the Top grant.

North Carolina used the money to send education coaches to low-performing schools and districts, a strategy researchers said led to student gains.

Henry suggested North Carolina’s larger school districts could create iZones, which give principals power to recruit teachers to struggling schools and offer them incentives.

The iZones and North Carolina’s strategy “both seem to be promising models,” he said.

The question of allowing North Carolina school districts to operate some of their low-performing schools like charters is being explored. Prompted by a request by a district superintendent, the State Board of Education has asked state education administrators for more details as it contemplates developing a policy.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction June Atkinson said about 16 superintendents want to know more about giving low-performing district schools some of the flexibility of charters. Those district leaders are interested in being able to extend the school day and the school year at struggling schools, she said.

Lynn Bonner: 919-829-4821, @Lynn_Bonner