mead cohen berger shevtsova garfinkle michta grygiel blankenhorn
Tennessee Hops on Education Reform Bandwagon


The South is moving quickly to the head of the pack in education reform. Following the lead of Louisiana’s Recovery School District, Tennessee is taking several low performing schools out of the jurisdiction of local school boards and placing them in a state-run Achievement School District, where well known charter operators like KIPP are taking over.

The switch to charter schools has raised the usual resistance, especially from teachers whose jobs were secure under the old system. The NYT reports:

“We’re not just asking people to do something incrementally different in a system that is fundamentally broken and the same,” said Chris Barbic, the achievement district’s superintendent and a Teach for America alumnus who went on to found the Yes Prep chain of 11 charter schools in Houston. […]

Suspicion remains about what the takeover means for experienced teachers. “A lot of our teachers are going to lose their jobs,” said Charlie Moore III, pastor of the Life Changing Church of God in Christ in Orange Mound.

Although achievement district officials say they have encouraged current teachers to apply for jobs at the revamped schools, none are guaranteed a slot. Just five teachers and three administrators previously with the schools remain.

There are other potential pitfalls. Many of the teachers and administrators in charters come from racial or socioeconomic backgrounds that are very different from the students and parents they serve. Some parents in Memphis are concerned that new disciplinary measures have created an uninviting classroom culture. Moreover, the charters in this special district have more frequent testing and longer school days. We have no problem with higher performance standards, but it’s not clear to us that more time spent sitting passively at a desk is what students need in the information age.

There are some promising signs as well. Test sores for the students in these districts are rising. And many of the charters are staffed by non-unionized workers, giving those schools more flexibility to experiment with new ideas like performance pay. The program is still too young to draw any broad conclusions, but the more flexible arrangement has opened up considerable new space to experiment.

Programs like Tennessee’s are gaining traction across the country. Michigan has also formed a state district for failing schools, and Virginia just approved its own version in February. Slowly but surely, America is taking serious steps to reform its failing school systems. We haven’t found all the answers yet, but at least we’re beginning to look.

[Image of school lockers courtesy of]

Features Icon
show comments
  • ojfl

    Many of the teachers and administrators in charters come from racial or socioeconomic backgrounds that are very different from the students and parents they serve.

    I am not sure I understand why this is a problem. Maybe someone here could explain why is it a bad thing to have true diversity in schools?

  • Andrew Allison

    “Some parents in Memphis are concerned that new disciplinary measures have created an uninviting classroom culture.” One in which teachers are expected to teach and students expected to learn perhaps?

  • Tom Altee

    Via Meadia:

    I am a thirty five year veteran of teaching in inner city schools in the Deep South. I agree with many of the premises on public education
    that are written about on this blog. But
    as “civilians” Via Meadia is not quite able to see the entire picture.

    Of importance:

    1. Charter schools and Public schools often havevery different rules of which they live and work by. Charter schools have much more flexibility in who they accept as students (no disabilities, no discipline problems, etc.) ,
    the ability to ask students to leave when they become a discipline problems is
    a major advantage of Charter Schools. There
    is also the lack of accountability testing by the State. The playing field is often far from level.

    2. There are very, very few financial accounting
    safeguards for public monies when it comes to Charter Schools. Exorbitant salaries for Administrators, etc. The State of Florida is rife with such examples to even the most cursory of examinations.

    3. It takes three years to become an effective
    teacher and have command of your subject, your classroom and the bureaucracy of
    your school. Teach for America is a wonderful program but the teachers I have
    met and worked with from this program in my inner city school almost never last
    more than two years before they quit.
    Indeed, our attrition rate in my school district is over 50% for all new
    teachers before they reach the five year mark.
    Invariably new TFA teachers are in absolute shock at the behavior of our
    students in my inner city after week one.
    One math teacher hired from TFA last year at our school lasted ONE day. Another two weeks. NONE have lasted more three years. Currently there are none at our school. Understandably so.

    4. Teacher Unions in the South are a joke. They are simply a political wing of the
    Democratic Party at the State level.
    They have little in common with their North Eastern or upper Midwestern brethren
    Unions. Teachers in my large city school
    district are fired all the time for various and sundry reasons. Unlike other jobs, say as a car salesman, once you lose a teaching job almost no one else will hire you as a teacher. Very rare is it the teacher who is fired from
    one school ever finds another job as a teacher.

    5. Ask yourself this question: Would you recommend that your child teach in an inner city school? If so for how many years? Personally,
    I told my daughter that I would pay for her entire college tab, but she was not
    allowed to become a teacher. I’ve been
    assaulted, danced to bullets spattering around my classroom, been called racist
    so many times I eventually joined the NAACP so that I would have card carrying
    proof of my benign intent within a classroom.
    Would you have a beloved child exposed to this as a career?

    It is my belief that before anyone pontificates upon public education or passes a law concerning public education they should spend a month working in an inner city classroom as either a teacher for TFA or as a
    classroom aide. Have you, Sir, done

    In much agreement with you,
    T.M. Altee
    Civics Teacher
    Jacksonville, Florida

  • Tom Altee

    Addendum to the comment below: I sent my daughter to twelve years of Catholic Schools where she received a wonderful liberal arts college prep education with discipline and structure. Make of that what you will.

  • TheRadicalModerate

    I’m a fan of charter schools and an even bigger fan with experimenting to find a pedagogy that actually works for the 21st century, but pulling schools out of local control in favor of state control is a terrible idea. In state control, even charter schools are guaranteed to be a one-size-fits-all proposition, which defeats the purpose.

    I watched the destruction of the California public school system from up close. (Unfortunately, my kids watched it from even closer.) IMO, Prop 13 was the initial cause, but the mechanism was more subtle: Lower tax revenues to the districts meant that subsidies from the state became dominant. That in turn meant that the state had final say on curriculum and standards. And that in turn meant that if some yahoo wanted to get his Pet Idiot Idea broadly implemented, he only had to lobby in one place, instead of 1100 different places.

    It’s fine to have the state sweep in and declare a school or district a failure and to mandate change. But that change needs to come from local folks, not people far removed from the problem. Otherwise, it only takes a few stupid people to wreak untold destruction.

  • foobarista

    The problem is “local control” ends up meaning “local machines”. School boards are an example where “democratic failure” is most apparent. In the vast majority of school board elections, nobody other than school insiders knows who these people are or what their election would mean, so it’s pretty easy for teacher unions and other political machine components to get their people entrenched on the board. Not sure what the right answer is – and I agree that state control isn’t wonderful either – but elections aren’t always the right way to insure good local control.

© The American Interest LLC 2005-2016 About Us Masthead Submissions Advertise Customer Service