There are currently 22 Arkansas schools classified in Academic Distress by the State Board of Education. These schools were classified as Academic Distress because 49.5% or fewer of their students meet proficiency standards on state assessments in literacy and math over the past three years.
Varied methods are being implemented for turning such persistently low performing schools into successful schools, from closing schools, to state takeover, to allowing charters to have a shot. While there have been cases of success, research has not yet identified a “silver bullet”, and strategies that show promise in one school, may fail to get results in another. Meanwhile, every day, students are sitting in classrooms of underperforming schools.
The proposed legislation to create the Achievement School District (ASD) is an attempt to support Arkansas’ lowest performing schools. Based on models implemented and lessons learned in Louisiana, Michigan and Tennessee, the ASD presents a diversified approach to turnaround schools in academic distress. Under the proposed legislation, the Commissioner of Education would oversee the Achievement School District and be authorized to assign any public school or school district in academic distress to the ASD.
About House Bill 1733
On March 6, 2015, Rep. Bruce Cozart, R-Hot Springs, filed HB1733, which would establish the Achievement School District (ASD).
- The commissioner may operate the academic distressed schools or districts directly, or may contract not-for-profit entities to operate the schools.
- Schools or districts would be assigned to the ASD for a minimum of three years. Initial placement can be for up to five years.
- Schools or districts that demonstrate sufficient academic growth for two consecutive years may be returned to the local school district or open-enrollment charter school. Schools or districts that fail to show sufficient academic growth may remain in the ASD.
- ASD schools are under the oversight of the Commissioner of Education, and the State Board of Education can make “binding recommendations concerning academic practices and staffing of the school.”
- School or districts in the ASD may be granted waivers, like those granted to open enrollment and district conversion charter schools. These waivers may include Teacher Fair Dismissal Act of 1983 and the Public Employee Fair Hearing Act. All employees working in ASD are at-will employees.
- Districts with a school assigned to ASD will still provide school and student support and may be reimbursed by the ASD for those costs. The districts must provide transportation, food service, building usage, alternative learning environments, special education services and athletics to students attending ASD schools.
How might this help students?
The turnaround model is designed to improve student achievement through autonomy, flexibility and innovation. We feel that creation of the Achievement School District could allow for flexibility at the school level to best meet student needs while leveraging the efficiency, expertise and collaboration of centralized support. All educators know that relying on one teaching strategy is not best for students. Teachers want flexibility in their teaching methods to make sure they can reach every student. Teachers also know that collaborating and sharing resources with other teachers can improve their practice, student learning and teacher morale. Through the development of the ASD, the schools in academic distress could use the flexibility to do what is best for their students while enjoying the support of other educators and resources.
Is there a downside?
Teachers are at the center of one of the most controversial aspects of these models: staffing the turnaround schools. A large body of research confirms that teachers are the most important school-based resource for improving student performance, so staffing the lowest performing schools with highly effective teachers is a central strategy for improving these schools. These turnaround schools receive waivers from the contract requirements between teachers and traditional public schools allowing flexibility to hire teachers they feel will best serve the students. In Michigan and Tennessee teachers at turnaround schools are guaranteed consideration for rehire and encouraged to apply, although reportedly the majority chose to transfer to other public schools.
Where did this idea come from?
In 2003, Louisiana created the Recovery School District (RSD) to take over struggling schools. RSD is run by the Louisiana department of Education and currently contains 80 schools. Originally, there were several schools in the district that were run directly by the state, but now all schools in the district are run by charter organizations. All RSD schools are open access, meaning students from anywhere in the city can attend. Although there are many critical of RSD, initial research indicates New Orleans students are showing high academic growth, closing the achievement gap, and improving graduation rates.
Michigan’s Education Achievement Authority (MEA) is modeled off Louisiana’s RSD, but is smaller and less focused on charters. The school system opened in Fall of 2012 with 15 of Detroit’s lowest performing schools. Schools are open access, meaning students from anywhere in the city can attend. Only 3 of the 15 schools are charters. Although very new, initial results indicate strong growth in student achievement.
Tennessee created the Achievement School District (ASD) as part of the Race to the Top grant in 2010. Modeled off Louisiana’s RSD, Tennessee’s program, is smaller (23 schools) and has some direct run schools. In contrast to the Michigan and Louisiana models, however, the ASD schools remain neighborhood schools serving children who live nearby.
If created, the ASD schools would join an increasing number of schools in Arkansas receiving waivers– district-conversion charters, open-enrollment charters, and schools of innovation. The waiving of certain requirements for traditional schools is controversial and concerns about the loss of local control of schools and changes to teacher contract requirements are major obstacles to the passage of the proposed legislation. These changes to the organizational structure of traditional public schools can be uncomfortable, but we are optimistic that the debate about HB 1733 and the academically distressed schools in our state can focus on what will be best for Arkansas students.