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Difficult Conversations: Learning from Tennessee’s Turnaround Efforts

By Urban Education Contributor — November 09, 2017 5 min read
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This post is by Nate Schwartz, Chief Research and Strategy Officer for the Tennessee Department of Education (@TNedu).

Today’s post is the practitioner perspective on Monday’s post: What 5 Years of Research Say About School Turnaround Efforts in Tennessee.

As Tennessee launched an ambitious school turnaround initiative in 2010, creating the state-led Achievement School District (ASD) and revising the system of school improvement funding for districts, the Tennessee Department of Education committed to a series of externally funded, independent research studies to monitor these efforts. Focusing on process as well as outcomes, the studies were meant to help us understand our data and explain the results. Ideally, they would provide a window into efforts that would reveal both positive outcomes for students and ways to continually refine and improve.

There have been several bright spots in Tennessee’s turnaround efforts over the last several years. On average, test results have improved in Tennessee’s priority schools, and some schools have made substantial progress leading to exiting the state’s priority school list. Yet we have also had to grapple with far weaker initial results within the Achievement School District than anyone would have wished.

We are not alone in our difficulties. A recent federal study on the impact of the School Improvement Grant (SIG) model found that, at a national level, the SIG grant model had “no significant impacts on math or reading test scores, high school graduation, or college enrollment.”

As a result, many of the conversations with our research partners haven’t been easy.

This is not the story that people often tell about research-practice partnerships. The prevailing narrative is that research partnerships are likely to bring both short and long-term payoffs to both sides of the partnership. Research can “challenge conventional wisdom,” as a recent brief from the Data Quality Campaign points out, but there tends to be little sympathy for those whose wisdom is being challenged.

Several times, we had real differences of opinion with our research partners over their interpretations of the findings.

For instance, some of the studies of the Achievement School District and the district-led iZones read to us as if these two initiatives were in direct competition with each other. Within the state department, the initiatives felt like complementary efforts, both funded in large part by state money. Indeed, we heard from district representatives that the presence of the ASD created the pressure that supported their efforts within the iZones.

Other times, we worried about how the release of research findings would play out in the political arena. We knew that the findings when picked up in the media would lose much of the nuance provided by the researchers and spur potentially distracting political polarization during the moments when school leaders most needed to focus on the work of educating Tennessee students. And we wondered how much sense it made to focus on short-term results versus giving the Achievement School District time to take root. Research on turnaround in Chicago found that the positive effects of turnaround efforts did not show up until two to four years after the reform began.

But the Tennessee research forced us to grapple head-on with these uncertainties around an initiative that everyone understood was both urgent and high-stakes for Tennessee students.

As Joshua Glazer, another of our research partners observes: “You [the state] enter into an initiative like the ASD and you have a whole bunch of assumptions about how it’s going to work. You’ve got to locate your research in a place where you’re actually testing your assumptions and revising. It is inherently uncomfortable. Let’s look at the outcomes, but let’s also investigate the underlying theory and see how it holds up as the evidence comes in.”

Each of our partners — Gary Henry at Vanderbilt University, Ron Zimmer at the University of Kentucky, Joshua Glazer from George Washington University, and Diane Massell from the University of Michigan — were repeatedly willing to put in the time and effort to work through their findings with program leaders at the state, helping us make sense of the results and think through potential areas for improvement.

The conversations with researchers — and the questions that this work surfaced — have spurred real learning within our department and across the state in how we can together take on the challenge of school turnaround. School turnaround is hard, and there is not a strong body of research on how to do it well.

Building on the research of the Tennessee Education Research Alliance — and working with stakeholders across the state — we have taken several steps that aim to capitalize on what we are learning about this work.


  • We have restructured the ASD to be more sustainable and flexible over time. It will continue to operate as one of the core elements in our school improvement continuum, which will now include a broader portfolio of tiered, evidence-based intervention options.


  • While many of our previous school improvement efforts, like the Achievement School District and the district-led iZone models, will continue, we are also creating new intervention options moving forward that do more to incorporate the community voice and provide the opportunity for more flexibility and innovation in determining school improvement decisions.


  • ESSA has provided us with an opportunity to build on what we’ve learned over the last several years within school improvement. That allows us to not only refine and scale up best practices, but also provide more clarity and structure for school improvement decisions in Tennessee. The plan is based on guiding principles that we heard from our community and developed based on research findings: (1) Empower districts; (2) Invest in what works, including leadership, instruction, and wrap-around supports, and; (3) Students can’t wait.

As this work continues, we will keep learning more about how to tailor the state’s role to make our turnaround efforts as impactful as possible. Along the way, we will look to our research partners to push our improvement conversations forward, helping us to refine our assumptions and develop our theories, even when the conversations are hard.

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The opinions expressed in Urban Education Reform: Bridging Research and Practice are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.


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