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    Researchers rank Tennessee's Achievement School District tops in theory

    Jane Roberts


    Mark Weber/The Commercial Appeal April 10, 2014 — Whitney Achievement Elementary third grader Destiny Washington, 8, works out math problems with a calculator while taking a TCAP practice exam during class Thursday afternoon. Recently the Center for Reinventing Public Education released a listing that ranks Achievement School District as the No. 1 among “portfolio districts” for measures to improve schools.


    Debra Broughton had a series of decisions to make when she took over Whitney Achievement Elementary in Frayser last year. As principal, it was up to her to decide how often teachers are observed and whether she does it all or gets help.
    She opted for help. Whitney teachers observe each other. They also videotape their instruction and then work collaboratively to improve it. In most public schools here, teachers are observed five or six times a year. At Whitney, it happens twice a week.
    “We have a schedule developed for that. That was one of the things I had a choice about,” Broughton says.
    Whitney is one of 13 Memphis schools under control of the state-run Achievement School District. There is a central office, but decisions about how individual schools operate are made at the school.
    Thursday, for the second time this year, the ASD led more than 40 mostly urban school districts in the seven areas University of Washington researchers say are most critical for student success. Besides autonomy, districts are ranked on their talent-seeking strategies, funding (do principals have authority to try new instructional models, like providing students laptops?), how well they engage the community and how they assess their own performance.
    “What we’ve seen in districts that are paying attention to all these components is they have a framework for improving schools,” said Libuse Binder, research analyst at the U of W’s Center for Reinventing Public Education in Seattle.
    “One size fits all doesn’t work for students. Parents need to be able to choose the best fit for their children. Teachers and leaders need freedom to see what works best for the kids they are serving,” she said.
    The ASD scores as a national exemplar in six categories of the seven categories, based on interviews with district leaders, case studies and visits. The ASD outscores New York, Denver and New Orleans Recovery School District, all of which have been at the work a long time, Binder says.
    For now, there is no category for student achievement. (That’s coming, Binder says.) Instead, the research studies how closely districts committed to continuous improvement have internalized strategies for maximizing school independence and safeguarding resources.
    “I think we’ve learned a lot from a lot of other people,” said ASD Supt. Chris Barbic. “While it’s nice to be recognized, the reality is we are standing on the shoulders of some other giants.”
    The ASD gained particular attention in this cycle for it Achievement Advisory Councils, groups of parents and community leaders who sign on for a six-month stint or more of matching ASD charter partners to particular community needs. “We think the councils have enhanced the ability of parents to find their voice in their school’s turnaround. We are doing this in partnership with you. It’s all about trying to engage parents to make great choices,” said Malika Anderson, ASD chief portfolio officer.
    Tennessee created the ASD as part of its Race to the Top proposal in 2010. The strategy is to move chronically underperforming schools from the bottom 5 percent to the top 25 percent in five years.
    The challenge, Barbic says, is “operationalizing” autonomy. “It’s the educators’ jobs to run schools and government’s job to regulate them,” he says. “When we talk about autonomy, it’s giving educators the opportunity to make the decisions that matter the most. What you see in lots of systems is that a lot of people in the central office think the bureaucracy knows best. What we are saying is the bureaucracy doesn’t know best.”
    But there are risks to giving school leaders untrammeled access to power. A promising new principal at Westside Achievement Middle left a month ago because he was losing ground. A change in leadership right before test season leaves a school vulnerable.
    Barbic says the key is accountability and moving fast to make changes if autonomy becomes a drowning force. He also says that charters that don’t make the grade will not be allowed to replicate, even though most of the ASD charter partners have 10-year growth plans.
    “Results are what matter the most,” Barbic said. “There’s really no victory until we see this transitioning into great results for our kids.”
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