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Last week’s release of our 2014-15 results showed several encouraging signs of progress: double-digit proficiency gains in our neighborhood high schools, a breakout year for our Achievement Schools, Level 5 growth for our second- and third-year groups of schools, and clear evidence that our elementary and middle school students are outpacing their state peers in math and science.  It also showed that we, like schools across Tennessee, have a lot of work to do in reading.

From the moment our results were made public, we started hearing chatter about our top 25% goal.  Is it feasible? Why was it set?  It is still early—we take on new groups of schools each year and two-thirds of our schools are only in their first or second years of operation—but standing where we are today, I absolutely believe in our decision to aim for thetop 25%.  Let me take you back to 2011, and tell you why.

Believing In Kids and Teachers

“Bottom 5% to top 25% in five years.” It’s specific. It’s aspirational.  It’s urgent. And that’s exactly what we needed when we started this work.  When the ASD officially launched in August 2011, there was no blueprint telling us how to build this new district, and with the exception of the Recovery School District in Louisiana, no example to follow.  We were faced with the challenge of improving persistently underperforming schools where fewer than one in six kids were reading and doing math on grade level. When it came to setting our “big audacious goal,” we knew we needed:

  1. A strong message about our relentless belief in every kid and every teacher;
  2. A rallying cry that would draw uniquely talented people who were motivated by the urgency and challenge of difficult turnaround work; and
  3. An end result that was far nobler than just “getting schools off a list.” We set out to create schools any of us would be proud to call our own.
Non-Believers and Naysayers

This was unprecedented.  Everywhere, people were telling us a top 25% goal was impossible. People mentioned poverty, politics, and countless other reasons why our students would never make it to the top 25%.  Many of those people were rooting for us to fail, and unfortunately, still are.  I’m not exactly sure why.  Maybe they are worried that we might actually succeed. And when we do, it will force them to deal with the fact that we can do better than the status quo.  Maybe it will force them to take responsibility for the shape of the schools we’ve inherited. Maybe they care more about being “right” than about the well-being of the students we’re serving.  And just maybe, they truly DON’T believe our kids can perform at the same level as their more affluent peers.

Rising to the Challenge

But here’s the thing.  We DO believe in our kids and our teachers.  And I’m proud to say that thousands have answered our urgent call to move schools to the top 25%. Today, we have 14 public school operators—about half local, half drawn from around the country—who are working relentlessly every day to serve kids in Memphis and Nashville and hold themselves accountable for breakthrough results.  Our rallying cry has galvanized a true community effort that includes teachers and school leaders, community organizations, talent providers, after-school and wraparound service organizations, advocacy groups, and most importantly, parents and families, who are all pouring their time, energy, and effort into our schools. Ask any of these thousands of people working with our students what the goal is and they’ll tell you, it’s top 25%.

It Can Be Done

Some of our schools are already showing what’s possible.  Four of our schools made the state’s “Priority Improving” list this year, indicating they are out of the bottom 10% and/or demonstrating outstanding year over year gains. Whitney Achievement Elementary grew math proficiency by 31 points in one year, reaching the state average in math proficiency in only two years. If teachers and students do just half as well next year, Whitney Achievement will be in the top 25% after only three years. Will every school take the exact same pathway to the top 25%? Likely not.  Some may get there quickly, some may take longer.  For those that take too long, we have clear accountability structures in place—we’ll never tolerate persistent failure.

What we ultimately seek is for every student to graduate high school with options, prepared for the demands of college and career, and ready to transition to adulthood and take care of themselves and their families and communities.

Higher Bar, Brighter Future

Think about this—in the time between when we began this work in 2012 to when the Priority list was rerun in 2014, the proficiency bar for bottom 5% rose 6.4 points in K-8 schools—a 40% increase in only two years. In fact, if we’re doing our jobs, every year it becomes harder to get out of the bottom 5% while at the same time we get closer to our top 25% goal.

That’s a nuance that some bloggers and media outlets don’t take the time to understand. But it’s the beauty of this work.  A rising tide lifts all ships.  And that’s nothing but good news for the kids and families of Tennessee.