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Driving Improvement in Low-Performing Schools

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About the Research

Like many states, Tennessee has sought to find the right approach toward intervening in low-performing schools. TERA will continue to build on an existing body of knowledge on school improvement efforts in the state and elsewhere to better understand the dynamics of chronic underperformance and the ways in which different intervention models can change them. 

Featured Study

Guiding Principles for Improving the Lowest-Performing Schools in Tennessee (Henry, Pham, Guthrie, & Harbatkin, 2018)

This brief explores state-led efforts to turn around low-performing schools. Distilling research on school reform from the past several years, including research conducted by TERA, we compile a set of guiding principles for state efforts to improve low-performing schools. These guiding principles constitute a coherent and interconnected approach to reform, all of which are necessary to improve Tennessee's lowest-performing schools.

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All Publications

A Closer Look at Tennessee's 2018 Priority Schools (Guthrie & Shelton, 2019)

This brief considers the 2018 Priority Schools List in both a comparative and historical context by comparing the 2018 Priority Schools to other schools in the state, comparing schools on the 2018 list to schools identified in 2012 and 2014, and examining the variation in performance trajectories of schools on the 2012 Priority List. 

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School Turnaround in Tennessee: Insights After Six Years of Reform (Pham, Henry, Kho, & Zimmer, 2019)

This brief examines student achievement gains six years into the implementation of Tennessee's two largest school turnaround efforts - the state-run ASD and the district-led iZones. Results indicate that while iZones showed positive growth in the early years, achievement in the iZone schools has been uneven in recent years. Additionally, ASD schools continue to perform no better or no worse than comparison schools.

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Defining and Measuring Progress in Improving Low-Performing Schools (Guthrie, 2018)

In this brief, we attempt to answer that question, but we first provide a framework of potential motivating rationales for engaging in turnaround work. We name three potential motivations for turnaround: excellence, equity, and efficiency. Each of these motivations comes with distinct definitions of "low-performing" and measures of progress. Then, under each rationale, we examine Tennessee's progress in driving improvement in low-performing schools over the last five years.

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Creating Conditions for Effective State Support for School Turnaround (Seale, 2018)

TERA recently brought together researchers, practitioners, and policymakers to discuss how states and districts can better support successful school turnaround. Participants included teams from state departments of education, including turnaround policy and research staff and their research partners, from Louisiana, Massachusetts, Michigan, and Tennessee. This report provides an overview of the conference, as well as summaries and subsequent discussions of research presentations covering three topics: turnaround policies, state supports for student needs, and teacher pipelines. The report also discusses the common areas of interest for future research and action as shared by the state teams.

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School Turnaround After Five Years: An Extended Evaluation of Tennessee's Achievement School District and Innovation Zones (Pham, Zimmer, Henry, & Kho, 2018)

In 2012, Tennessee began a series of bold new initiatives to turn around its lowest-performing five percent of schools, known as Priority schools. Building on previous research, this brief examines student achievement gains five years into the implementation of the two largest school turnaround efforts - the state-run Achievement School District and district-led iZones. Results are consistent with past evaluations of these two initiatives, with iZone schools sustaining positive gains in student achievement throughout the period, while ASD schools did no better or worse than other low-performing schools.

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How Has iZone Teacher Recruitment Affected the Performance of Other Schools? Examining Systemic Effects of Teacher Recruitment for School Turnaround (Kho, Henry, Zimmer & Pham, 2018)

This brief continues the examination of Tennessee's efforts to turn around its lowest performing schools by reviewing the extent to which statewide iZone teacher recruitment has impacted the schools from which these teachers came. Results indicate that students who lose teachers to iZone schools experience a slight decrease in achievement. However, these decreases do not appear to be large enough to offset the average achievement gains students experience when they attend iZone schools.

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Driving Improvement in Low-Performing Schools: Lessons from Five Years of Research on State Turnaround Efforts (Guthrie, 2017)

In 2012, Tennessee implemented a school turnaround strategy focused on the bottom five percent of schools. Five years later, as the state considers updates to its school improvement strategy, this brief broadly considers how these policies developed and how they have worked in practice. Summarizing years of TERA research, the brief highlights findings on how turnaround schools have fared in terms of student achievement, teacher retention, and community engagement.

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Recruitment and Retention of Teachers in Tennessee's Achievement School District and iZone Schools (Henry, Zimmer, Kho & Pham, 2017)

Examining data from the 2012-13 school year through 2014-15, the study focused on teachers in the two largest efforts to turn around Tennessee's priority schools - those that rank in the bottom 5 percent in performance. Overall, both ASD and iZone schools recruited more highly effective teachers compared to other Priority and non-Priority schools in Tennessee. Annual teacher turnover rates were much higher among ASD schools than among iZone schools. Both the ASD and iZone schools experienced significantly higher gains in teacher effectiveness through teacher replacement than did other Priority schools in Tennessee. This was particularly evident in iZone schools.

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"This is the Big Leagues:" Charter-led Turnaround in a non-Charter World (Glazer & Malone, 2016)

With mounting evidence of promising results in charter schools serving disadvantaged students, charter networks have been urged to expand their reach to turn around the most chronically low-achieving schools. But such work often imposes stricter conditions that are different from those that charters typically enjoy. Do these differences undermine the theory of action that was meant to make charters effective in the first place? What adaptations to their school models and organizational capacities does this environment require? This article addresses those questions using evidence from a three-year study of charters in the Tennessee Achievement School District. We discuss how operators were pressed to substantially revise their core assumptions and strategies in response to this new environment, despite the many charter-like affordances they received.

The Tennessee Achievement School District: Race, History, and the Dilemma of Public Engagement (Glazer & Egan, 2016)

The Tennessee Achievement School District (ASD) is one of several state-run districts established to turn around under-performing schools. Like other such districts, the ASD removes schools from their local district, yet is not accountable to local political institutions. But despite its authority, the ASD has been undermined by unrelenting opposition from within Memphis where its schools reside. Underlying the political dynamics surrounding the ASD are two divergent narratives. For supporters, the ASD is an innovative effort to improve the educational experience fo the most disadvantaged students. Critics see an enterprise motivated by profit, paternalism, and racism. One lesson from the ASD experience is that while state-run districts seek to circumvent local politics, the absence of mechanisms for brokering compromise in cities with deep historical divisions may prove impossible.

Teacher and Student Migration in and out of Tennessee's Achievement School District (Henry, Zimmer, Attridge, Kho & Viano, 2015)

This report discusses teacher turnover and student mobilities in Tennessee's Achievement School District. Researchers found that the majority of teachers left their schools after the first year of the intervention, and the ASD faced a significant need to hire new teachers. Among the new hires, nearly a third were novice teachers. Of those with teaching experience in Tennessee, the ASD hired more high-performing teachers, in terms of value-added scores, as compared to the teachers who left before the ASD takeover. In terms of student mobility, researchers found that the ASD had a high rate of student mobility into their schools in the first year of takeover, but the rates declined with each subsequent year. The proficiency levels of students transferring the ASD schools had little effect on the overall proficiency rates of ASD schools.

Evaluation of the Effect of Tennessee's Achievement School District on Student Test Scores (Zimmer, Kho, Henry & Viano, 2015)

This brief summarizes the effects of Tennessee's Achievement School District on students' academic performance. While the effects across all Priority schools were small but positive, the effects in the 26 iZone schools were positive and moderate to large across all tested subjects. The effects in the ASD schools were mainly indistinguishable from zero, and when significant, those effects were sometimes positive and sometimes negative depending on subject and management organization.

Research into Tennessee's Achievement School District: Accountability, Incentives, and Guidance for Providers (Glazer, Massell & Malone, 2015)

This report elaborates the theory of action that undergirds the Tennessee Achievement School District (ASD), including the ideological commitments of ASD leaders, and the strategy they think will lead to improvement in student outcomes. Researchers examine underlying beliefs of ASD providers, highlighting fundamental differences in their beliefs about teaching and learning. In addition, the report discusses the difficulty of using state assessment to support organizational learning among providers and the ASD leadership.

John and Laura Arnold Foundation and Walton Family Foundation Reports

Below are reports for the John and Laura Arnold Foundation and Walton Family Foundation from the ongoing work of evaluating school turnaround in Tennessee including analysis of the Achievement School District (ASD) and Innovation Zones. The conference report contains a summary of a 2018 conference focused on  the latest research findings, reasons behind these findings and unanswered questions that need to be addressed in order for the turnaround movement to move forward.  Annual reports contain highlights from research conducted in the preceding year by TERA researchers Gary Henry and Ron Zimmer with support from Adam Kho, Samantha Viano, and Lam Pham. Full analyses of the work summarized in these reports can be found in the following publications linked above on this website: Recruitment and Retention of Teachers in Tennessee's Achievement School District and iZone Schools, Teachers and Student Migration in and out of Tennessee's Achievement School District, and Evaluation of the Effect of Tennessee's Achievement School District on Student Test Scores.