Over the past few years, Tennessee has taken important steps to improve public education. With a focus on higher standards, great teaching, turning around low performing schools, and using data in new and important ways, Tennessee has made significant progress. Even with student achievement improving, there is still a lot of work left to do before every student graduates high school prepared for college and the workforce.

One important way Tennessee has worked to raise student achievement is through initiatives aimed at turning around low performing schools. Tennessee’s Achievement School District (ASD) is a special statewide district that acts as both as school operator and charter authorizer that steps in to take over and support the lowest performing 5 percent of schools in the state. In the first of a series of reports on statewide turnaround efforts commissioned by the Fordham Institute, author Nelson Smith examines the work of the ASD.

Smith highlights key aspects of Tennessee’s turnaround work that other states can learn from, including the importance of community support and buy-in. As Smith notes, “people hate for their schools to be closed and taken over” and states should consider options that allow communities to participate in and contribute to the decision-making process.

Lessons learned from Tennessee’s Achievement School District:

  • Recruit and invest in top talent.
  • High expectations lead to high achievement.
  • Use data effectively to identify school operators.
  • Shift power in the school to leaders and parents.

While much can be learned about school turnaround from the ASD, the Fordham Institute reminds us that recovery districts will not solve every problem, but “they open a valuable window to what innovation and the question for alternatives can lead to.”

This new policy brief is the first in a series by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute on the ways that statewide turnaround districts affect traditional governance relationships among public schools, school districts, the state, and the federal government. The next installments in the Redefining the School District series will focus on the efforts in Michigan, Virginia, and Louisiana, as well as providing an overview of RSDs.