Since 2012, Tennessee has taken a unique approach to intervening in struggling schools. With the goal of turning around the lowest-performing 5 percent of schools in the state (known as priority schools), officials introduced two separate models: the Achievement School District (ASD) and Innovation Zones (iZones). The ASD is a state-run district that directly manages some priority schools and turns others over to select charter management organizations. iZones, on the other hand, are subsets of priority schools that remain under district control but are granted greater autonomy and financial support to implement interventions. There are four districts that contain iZones: Shelby County Schools (Memphis), Metro-Nashville Public Schools, Hamilton County Schools (Chattanooga), and Knox County Schools (Knoxville). The remaining priority schools weren’t included in either of these initiatives, effectively creating a comparison group.

Research teams from Vanderbilt University and the University of Kentucky have kept a close eye on both initiatives. In 2015, they published an evaluation of the ASD and iZone schools after three years of implementation. They found that, while ASD schools did not improve any more or less than other priority schools, iZone schools produced moderate to large positive effects on student test scores. A separate study also found that both initiatives had high rates of teacher turnover, but that the numbers were higher in ASD than iZone schools.

Now a recently published study examines the impacts of both initiatives after five years of implementation. To complete their evaluation, the researchers examined student- and teacher-level demographic data, test scores on state assessments, and school enrollment data from 2006—07 through 2016—17. They then compared changes in test scores after reforms were initiated with changes in test scores in priority schools that weren’t part of the ASD or iZones.

The five-year findings are similar to the results of the three-year evaluation. After five years, iZone schools showed moderate to large positive and statistically significant effects on reading, math, and science test scores. These results that suggest iZone schools were able to sustain their early success. ASD schools, on the other hand, showed insignificant results across all three subjects—that is, they did not gain more or less than non-ASD or iZone priority schools. Since the ASD includes recent cohorts of schools that were only exposed to one to three years of reform, the researchers also reviewed the data using only the first two cohorts of schools, those overseen by the ASD for four or five years. However, they found that effects were still not statistically significant in any subject.

The researchers also took their analysis a step further by comparing the iZone’s positive results to other turnaround results across the country. They found that, in reading, iZone gains of 0.14 standard deviations were similar to those that occurred under the School Redesign Grants model in Massachusetts and the state takeover of Lawrence Public Schools. In math, iZone effects ranging between 0.16 and 0.20 standard deviations were similar to gains achieved in Philadelphia’s restructured schools

Overall the results for ASD schools were disappointing, but the findings of this brief and the gains made by iZone schools are a valuable addition to existing school turnaround research.

SOURCE: Lam Pham, Gary T. Henry, Ron Zimmer, Adam Kho, “School Turnaround After Five Years: An Extended Evaluation of Tennessee’s Achievement School District and Local Innovation Zones,” Tennessee Education Research Alliance (June 2018). 

Policy Priority:
Jessica Poiner - Fordham

Jessica Poiner is a 2011 Teach For America corps member who worked as a high school English teacher in Memphis, Tennessee. While in Memphis, she taught for Shelby County Schools and the Achievement School District. A native of Ohio, Jessica holds a bachelor’s degree in English from Baldwin-Wallace University. 

View Full Bio