From 2012 to 2016, three reforms took place in Memphis: the Gates Foundation teacher evaluation reform, the Achievement School District (ASD) charter school turnaround effort, and the district run izone turnaround effort.
In private conversations, I predicted that neither the teacher evaluation nor izone efforts would work. I thought the ASD charter effort work would work. The Arnold Foundation funded research to help us understand if our beliefs about how to help children were correct.
Five years later, the results paint a different picture than my predictions: the teacher evaluation work did not improve achievement. The ASD charters have yet to deliver results. And the izone schools have done the best.
I was wrong about the izone and the ASD.
So what to do now?
The short answer: expand non-profit governance to protect the gains of izone schools, and continue to grow the best non-profit public charters and replace the worst.
The longer answer is below.
Responding to Being Wrong
There are three ways to respond to being wrong: ignore that you were wrong, change your behavior, or admit that you were wrong but double down.
Ignoring that you’re wrong is never good.
Changing your behavior is often the most reasonable response.
Doubling down comes with substantive and reputation risk, but it can be the right thing to do.
The teacher evaluation reforms went roughly as I expected, so I won’t discuss that too much here, other than saying that my predictions were based on the belief that execution would hamper implementation in big urban districts, which seems to be exactly what happened.
Here are the results of the izone and ASD charter efforts:
The izone had a positive .2 stand deviation effect over five years. This is fairly good impact and it’s great to see these schools helping students.
The ASD schools had no impact.
What I Got Wrong
I made a few mistakes.
First, I underestimated the school district’s strategic and executional competency. In creating the izone, the district successfully recruited a lot of their best educators to their izone schools, and then appointed a talented leader, Sharon Griffith, to oversee these schools. This strategy (concentrating talent) and execution (selecting a great leader) worked in ways I did not expect.
Second, I overestimated the abilities of charter networks to deliver results in the first few years of the turnaround efforts. My assumption was that expert charter leaders would be able to deliver better results pretty quickly, even though they were going into very difficult situations and were often coming from out of town. Unfortunately, a few operators really struggled in the early years, with one of them, Yes College Prep, choosing to not even open up a school (this was a big hit as YES is considered to be one of the best networks in the country).
What I Would Have Done Differently
I should have realized that great educators in the traditional system could achieve good results if given autonomy in a competitive environment. I have changed my beliefs on this issue based of the work of the izone, the work in Lawrence, Massachusetts, and my lived experience of seeing great teachers and leaders in all types of schools.
Rather than predict the izone wouldn’t work, I should have predicted that the izone might work, but advocated for non-profit governance over the zone so that it could sustain its gains. This remains my worry with the izone: that it will not be able to sustain its impacts over the next 5-10 years due to its governance structure, which makes it vulnerable to political shifts.
I also worry that it can’t really scale. Putting the best educators in the worst school is more of a one time intervention rather than a strategy that can grow over time, and it has some negative effects on the schools that lose their great educators.
Second, I should have realized that early stage charter operators (either newly started or new to Memphis) would struggle to scale through full school turnarounds in a difficult political environment. In hindsight, I should have advocated for more one grade at a time roll outs of newer operators. While this would have been more disruptive to families at the outset, it would have been better for kids over the long run.
What to Do Now
If the above diagnosis is true, it doesn’t really call for a dramatic change in strategy.
Rather, it calls for trying to get non-profit governance over the best district schools, growing the charters that are working, replacing those that aren’t, and starting new non-profit district and charter schools under more favorable conditions.
Getting non-profit governance to the best district educators would (I think) require a change in legislation.
Growing the best charter schools and closing the worst can be done under current policy.
Evidence to Support Doubling Down
Researchers have found evidence of charter school sectors improving over time. This paper on charters in Texas found significant sector improvements, which led the researchers to write:
The findings suggest the value of taking a longer-term perspective when evaluating the impact of a major educational reform such as the introduction of charter schools, especially when the success of the reform ostensibly depends on parental decisions and market forces.
Additionally, previous research on Memphis charters found strong positive effects:
These results mirror the results of many other urban charter sectors, which generally find positive effects.
So there is a research based case for predicting that the Memphis charters will improve over the next 5-10 years. We have already seen this with some operators, such as Aspire.
The research has increased my belief that great district school educators, with autonomy and support (and often pressure on local districts from the state to give this autonomy) can really help struggling students.
I still believe that these gains risk backsliding due to political shifts, so I support giving these schools non-profit governance so they can build enduring organizations (both Denver and Indianapolis have mechanisms to give district schools non-profit status).
I also still believe that growing the best charters and closing the worst is one of the best hopes for improving student achievement in Memphis.
So, in many ways, I’m choosing to double down despite being wrong, with the caveat of calling for non-profit governance for more types of public schools.
While this is uncomfortable, I don’t know a better way forward. I think doubling down will help children.
I understand that many of those who I disagree with say “we just need more time.” And I’m making a version of this argument here. So I’ve tried to lay out all my assumptions as clearly as possible, both for the sake of transparency, as well as with the hope that these assumptions can be corrected if they are wrong.