Vanderbilt education researcher talks the middling numbers of achievement school districts

Vanderbilt University education policy professor Gary Henry

Vanderbilt University education policy professor Gary Henry

North Carolina lawmakers may be likely to pursue legislation this year to install a pilot program for an achievement school district among the state’s lowest-performing schools.

But on Thursday, one of the nation’s leading researchers on the controversial reform method—which could turn over management of troubled schools to for-profit, charter operators—delivered data to a handful of lawmakers and a number of education policy advocates that delineated its somewhat middling results in the last three years in Tennessee.

 

As Gary Henry, a professor of public policy and education at Vanderbilt University, told Policy Watch this week, the achievement school districts showed “little to no effect” on student performance in low-performing schools in Tennessee.

“So the ambitious goal of getting all the schools into the top 25 percent has not been attained,” said Henry.

Henry’s presentation came one day after the first meeting of the N.C. House’s Select Committee on Achievement School Districts, a Republican-steered committee that presented draft legislation that would install a similar system in at least five low-performing elementary schools in North Carolina as soon as the 2017-2018 academic year. However, Henry had not been asked to address that committee as of Tuesday.

While multiple members of that committee were in attendance Thursday, the select committee’s chairman and leading proponent in the legislature, Mecklenburg County Republican Rob Bryan, did not attend. His assistant did attend, and said Bryan was busy in another committee meeting.

Henry, a former UNC-Chapel Hill professor who’s also assessed North Carolina’s own interventions in struggling schools, presented data Thursday on a Tennessee school turnaround program that employed $500 million in federal Race to the Top funds.

Of the 82 lowest-performing schools identified by Tennessee, roughly a third were shuttled into the achievement school district. Most in the achievement district were managed by charter operators.

Another third saw no intervention and the remaining students, primarily located in urban districts in Memphis, Chattanooga and Nashville, employed a novel concept called “innovation zones,” or “iZones,” districts given greater flexibility, funding and development opportunities.

While the achievement districts saw no statistically significant impacts, scores in the iZone schools saw definite gains in math and reading.

Henry added that the iZone schools, due to the increase in state resources, were also able to offer higher teaching salaries.

Teaching salaries are a major subject this year in North Carolina too, and with N.C. Superintendent of Public Instruction June Atkinson proposing a 10 percent across-the-board raise Wednesday, education advocates are hoping to move the state’s average teacher pay out of a lowly 42nd in the nation.

However, Henry also cautioned against drawing too much from the data, pointing out his study is limited by the fact that he was only able to draw data from the achievement school district’s relatively short three years of work.

Meanwhile, Henry also presented data on North Carolina’s own low-performing school intervention efforts, which, thus far, have been led by public school leaders. Those efforts, which Henry described as “some of the most ambitious in the country,” yielded results in the state’s Turning Around N.C.’s Lowest-Achieving Schools (TALAS) program.

According to Henry, 60 percent of TALAS schools outperformed the state average change in performance since the program was implemented in the 2011-2012 academic year.

Likewise, TALAS schools reported a 16.7 percent average improvement in the dropout rate, compared to 7 percent improvement in non-TALAS schools.

“These schools are getting better,” said Henry. “It’s not, by any means, impossible.”

However, Henry said progress at low-performing schools, many of which serve a disproportionate amount of economically disadvantaged and minority students, is not sustainable without consistent focus and resources.

“As we move forward, unless we intervene with these schools, we can lose a generation of kids waiting for reforms,” he said.

Thursday’s conference was put on by the Public School Forum of N.C., a nonpartisan thinktank specializing in developing public education strategies.

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