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What 5 Years of Research Say About School Turnaround Efforts in Tennessee

By Urban Education Contributor — November 06, 2017 4 min read
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This week we are hearing from the Tennessee Education Research Alliance (TERA, @TNEdResAlliance). This post was authored by Erin O’Hara (@ErinOHaraTN), Executive Director, and J. Edward Guthrie (@jeguth), research associate, of TERA.

TERA previously blogged about building a research agenda on professional learning in Tennessee and the state role in teacher improvement.

Today’s post is written from the researcher perspective. Stay tuned: Thursday we will share the practitioner’s perspective.

Today, the Tennessee Education Research Alliance (TERA) releases the first in a series of research briefs on school turnaround efforts in the state. This installment, “Lessons from Five Years of Research on State Turnaround Efforts,” summarizes studies on the Achievement School District (ASD) and Innovation Zones (iZones). In the five years since Tennessee began to take dramatic new action to turnaround its lowest-performing schools, researchers partnered with TERA have investigated what has worked, what has not, and why. This post provides a preview and summary of the brief and insight into how TERA has worked with the Tennessee Department of Education (TDOE) to help the state examine the years of experience, feedback, and research to consider its path forward.

Lessons from Five Years of Research on State Turnaround Efforts” includes summaries of research led by Gary Henry of Vanderbilt University, Ron Zimmer of the University of Kentucky, and Joshua Glazer of George Washington University. The state’s efforts and the research have centered around two major reform strategies: the Achievement School District, in which school governance is transferred from local school districts to a statewide district and schools are managed either directly by the ASD or by a charter organization; and district-run Innovation Zones, in which governance stays with the district while the state financially supports instructional and operational changes.

The researchers’ analyses of data through 2014-15 suggest that:


  • Overall, priority schools in Tennessee have improved both in absolute terms and relative to the rest of the state.

  • State-led ASD intervention did not improve student outcomes relative to other low-performing schools in its first several years of operation.

  • iZone schools have, on average, improved student outcomes.

  • Success has not been equal across all iZones, however, and evidence suggests these iZone gains owe in part to these schools tapping into finite pools of within-district talent.

  • ASD school operators faced new and unexpected challenges without clear collective learning and sharing processes.

  • Historical and political challenges may have hampered the ASD’s success.

The research brief offers a synthesized retrospective of the past several years of research, highlights recent and concurrent policy shifts in the state, and lays out a research agenda for the coming years. While the synthesis across studies is new, the findings have been a repeated topic of discussion with the state. In fact, over the last five years, the state has repeatedly made adjustments to their strategies toward low-performing schools in part due to ongoing conversations and feedback from researchers. In the next installment of this blog, the Tennessee Department of Education will outline specifically how.

There are some key ingredients for this type of partnership between researchers and state departments of education to be successful: First, the Tennessee Department of Education is both research savvy and research hungry. This begins at the top, with a succession of state commissioners eager to let evidence drive decision-making. It’s supported by a strong internal data and research team, whose presence at the department not only embeds their own high capacity for conducting and digesting research, but whose frequent presentations to other divisions strengthen the department-wide organizational culture around engaging research findings. TDOE then offers a great audience for research, and simultaneously sets a high bar for coherence, pushing researchers to square their findings with the political and practical realities practitioners face in their own work.

Beginning this year, TERA has more actively facilitated conversations both among researchers studying turnaround in Tennessee as well as between these researchers and TDOE. These conversations have helped the state receive preliminary feedback well ahead of academic publication schedules and given researchers the most current information possible in order to steer hypotheses and data collection toward the mechanisms driving improvement in low-performing schools.

Even as school turnaround in Tennessee transitions to a post-RTTT landscape, research on the impacts of the past five years and current policy continues. In coming months, TERA and affiliated researchers will continue to answer critically important questions as the state moves forward: Are the early successes in the iZones sustainable? What specific practices in successful iZones or among ASD operators might be replicable? What practices within schools have led to improvements? Have improvements in low performing schools improved the overall landscape of student achievement in Tennessee? What lessons can be learned from other states with similar reform efforts, such as Louisiana, Massachusetts, and Michigan? How will implementation efforts in a new state governance model, a partnership zone, differ from the existing models? What impact will the various models have over time?

TERA’s forthcoming research in this area will aim to build the body of knowledge on turnaround practices in Tennessee, provide objective analysis of the state’s actions, and ultimately spur a cycle of continuous improvement in the state’s low performing schools.

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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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