Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Memphis iZone Belieber? Not me....yet

From TN Edu-Independent - The iZone "success" story out of Memphis has continued to pick up steam.  The iZone is an internal Shelby County Schools effort - a district within a district - to turn around the district's lowest performing schools (Priority Schools that are the bottom 5% of all schools in the state).

I've read all sorts of things lately... "national success story..."  "You see the iZone far outpacing anybody else..."

I couldn't take it anymore after I read the iZone referred to as "the jewel of Shelby County Schools."

Let me be clear that I think turnaround work in public K-12 education is some of the hardest, grit grinding work there is, whether that happens in a district, charter or other setting. I don't take it lightly that people are working their butts off aligned with a vision to give kids, families and neighborhoods a brighter future. In fact I have a lot of respect for the teachers and leaders and those efforts (assuming it's all legit, not like Atlanta).

With that said, I become really skeptical about authentic school improvement "success stories" and improvement that will stick around when I hear an urban district go into overdrive PR mode.  I've been hearing nothing but the iZone is the answer lately (there are no silver bullets by the way).

Of course, one of the prime reasons the iZone is being pumped so much under the "we have arrived banner" is it's being used politically to say HELL NO WE WON'T GO, NO MORE ASD (Achievement School District)...even some Nashville career politicians have been promoting it...or maybe were behind the whole PR effort from the beginning (that's a chicken or egg question).

The longstanding riff in Memphis (and Nashville) is the growing presence of the ASD over the past couple of years and the conversion of a number of district schools into the ASD, either direct run or into charter operated schools. Local vs. state control. Who controls the money. OK guys, I get it.
So I had to look at the data to see if this Cinderella story were really true...
  • Dark red means still bottom 5% in the state on the 2014-15 1 year percentile ranking
  • Light red means bottom 10% in the state on the 2014-15 1 year percentile ranking
  • Yellow means bottom 5% in the state on the 2014-15 1 year percentile ranking
  • Green means out of the bottom 25% on the 2014-15 1 year percentile ranking
I'd say on the whole, no, the iZone hasn't arrived, at least yet.  Most of the schools are still not out of the bottom 10%, with a number of them still in the bottom 5%. 

I can't say I'm a Belieber yet.

I include "yet" because it's true, 2 iZone schools have made crazy gains...one school like beyond crazy gains...Cherokee Elementary went from the bottom 5% to the 57th percentile in 2 academic years.  It makes you wonder what they did to see those types of gains.

Also fair to this analysis is that the 3 high schools who were iZone schools for the first time in 2014-15 stayed in the bottom 5% after the 2014-15 academic year.  High schools are really challenging to turn around, and it was only 1 year's worth of data thus far.

A few other notes on this data:

  • To become an iZone school in the first place, you need to be a Priority School. That list is run officially by the state every 3 years, most recently in 2014, and based on 3 years of data to determine the bottom 5% of schools.  The state calculates the "success measure" for each school and then ranks those (K-8, 9-12) in percentiles to get the state's bottom 5% (3 year).
  • So while the data I had available for state percentile ranking was 1 year, the latest from 2014-15, it'll likely be pretty close when the list is run again in 2017 (3 years) to determine the new set of Priority Schools across the state.
Again, Priority schools are bottom 5% of all schools in the state and the goal of the iZone is to get those iZone designated schools out of the bottom 5% (and into the top 25%).  
There are also legitimate district management policy questions about the creation and operation of the iZone, one of the leading ones involving how iZone schools try to recruit top leadership and teaching talent to iZone schools.  What sort of "brain drain" effect is moving high quality teachers and leaders into iZone schools having on the schools that those educators leave? Does the performance of those schools on a school-wide basis suffer?

I'll leave these larger questions for a later post.  But in conclusion, I'm not really buying the PR that's out there on the Memphis iZone...it certainly seems too early to make any kind of definitive call, and a more accurate portrayal of what's really happened is that some iZone schools have made worthwhile gains, but a number of them still have not. The performance is pretty mixed.

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