Movers & shakers

The state-run Achievement Schools has a new academic leader. Here’s her vision for amplifying the district’s top teachers

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
A former superintendent for Jackson-Madison County Schools, Verna Ruffin became the ASD's chief of academics in August.

As the newly named chief academic officer for Tennessee’s turnaround district, Verna Ruffin said one of her first priorities will be investing in their top tier teachers.

“We know that we have critical work to do,” Ruffin said. “And we also know that investing in our classrooms is a sure way to move the needle on student achievement. We have teachers who are doing amazing work. We need to amplify them.”

Ruffin joins the state’s Achievement School District, known as the ASD, during a chaotic season of change. One month after she was hired as part of a major leadership team overhaul, the district’s superintendent, Malika Anderson, announced she was stepping down. Ruffin will work with the interim superintendent, Kathleen Airhart, until Anderson’s replacement is hired.

When the state-run district launched in 2011, it was with the aspiration to turn around schools performing in the bottom 5 percent of the state through new charter management. But results have lagged, and school leaders say turnaround work has been harder than expected in Memphis, where many of their students live in generational poverty and come to school behind grade level.

Ruffin’s role with the five-year-old district is a new one. She will oversee the district’s five direct-run schools in Memphis called Achievement Schools, a role previously filled by the former executive director, Tim Ware. But her job description also includes raising the academic bar across all 32 ASD schools and promoting more collaboration among them.

The most recent round of state test scores show the district has work ahead to reach its visionaries’ original goal. The state’s growth scores, announced last week, rank the Achievement district as a level 1, the lowest possible score. And within the direct-run Achievement Schools, which Ruffin directly oversees, three of five schools scored a level 1.

Ruffin got her start in education more than 30 years ago as a band director in Louisiana before moving into school leadership roles. She was an assistant superintendent in Tulsa, Okla., where she specialized in working with low-performing schools, before becoming superintendent at Jackson-Madison County Schools in 2013. She will earn $115,000 a year with the Achievement Schools.

We sat down with Ruffin to hear about her game plan for improving the Achievement district’s academics in her new role. The interview has been lightly edited and condensed for brevity and clarity.

Tennessee’s growth formula, known as TVAAS, ranked the ASD as a level 1 overall for academic growth. What is your initial read of those scores, and how do you plan to raise the bar?

I’m very proud of the schools that earned a rating of 5 and for their contributions for growing students beyond a typical year’s growth. Of the five schools in the direct-run Achievement Schools, we had one at a level 5 and one at a level 3.

But the other direct-run schools and a number of schools within the whole network received a level 1. There is an urgency to focus on instruction and strategies to help children become successful. I’m thinking through — what does this mean for individual schools?

A focus for me will be to look at staff members and their individual TVAAS scores. We have level 5 teachers, and we can get them to collaborate more and bring their strengths to their own campuses, but also to the ASD as a network. The TVAAS conversation is still challenging to understand. How do you measure growth? How can you determine that when the assessment has changed?  It can be hard to get people to subscribe to something you can’t explain, and we’re having ongoing conversations about what the data can tell us moving forward.

Talk to me more about your vision for investing in individual teachers to raise academic performance.

When I was superintendent in Jackson-Madison, we added instructional times in the afternoons at one of our lower performing schools. We sought level 4 and 5 teachers across the district and asked them: “Would you come teach at this school in the afternoons during their after-school program?” We asked the teachers to look at the data of students within that school and come up with a plan for what they were going to teach the children. We opened up an application process, and teachers came. That year, this school jumped from a level 1 to a level 5 in growth. We attribute that to the emphasis on instruction and the quality staff that was willing to work with the children in an after-school, purposeful, instructional model.

We think that this model, effectively implemented, is how you’re going to change learning for children. We do not have enough level 4 or 5 teachers across the district to just say, we’re going to take a level 5 teacher from this school and put them over in this school because then we’re going to create a deficit model. So, it’s about how to utilize the talent of your current staff and spread it out so they can influence children in another school in an acceptable way to teachers. This is something I would absolutely consider doing within the ASD.

What do you see as the biggest challenge for the ASD as a whole?

I think one of the biggest challenges is that the ASD has existed with a tremendous amount of autonomy, and people are accustomed to that autonomy. And they may not quite embrace the fact that even if we have autonomy, we have a shared goal. And we have to meet that goal.

So, the autonomy of the ASD isn’t going away, but we have to better describe and define what an ASD education is. Our goal is the same for every school in the ASD, to raise student achievement. We have a moral responsibility working with the bottom 5 percent in the state of Tennessee to not stay at the bottom 5 percent. And so, having said that, there are some things that we’ve got to do that are non-negotiable that will get us out of the bottom 5 percent of schools. We have to be better. We have to figure out what’s going to make the ASD stand out, and how we work together as a very diverse group of schools.

Part of your role is to foster more collaboration between the direct-run Achievement Schools and the other charter-run schools within the ASD. What is your vision for building cross-district collaboration?

First, is taking the time to make connections. We are doing this work together, and the only way we can do that is to know one another. It’s a very small, but a big step. I am planning on meeting with the other chief academic officers in the ASD to work in step with them on a vision for the future.

We’re also creating a new academic team, which we are still in the process of hiring for. This team will include content specialists in literacy and math that will work across the district. These specialists can help us zero in across the district on what effective instruction is.

Our focus — across all ASD schools — on kindergarten through third-grade literacy is also going to be very strong this year. I’m asking questions like, “What does a phonics lesson look like across the ASD? How can we learn from one another on how to better teach phonics?”

We’re no longer working in silos, but there’s going to be collaboration on what classroom instruction looks like. And then we’re going to better monitor that instruction and hold ourselves accountable to making the gains we have to make.

Signed and sealed

Federal officials deny New York testing waivers but sign off on its plan for judging schools

PHOTO: Monica Disare
State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia and Board of Regents Chancellor Betty Rosa

New York cannot create special testing rules for students with disabilities or those still learning English, the U.S. education department said Tuesday.

The decision to deny New York the testing waivers it had sought came on the same day that the department signed off on the state’s plan to evaluate and support schools under the new federal education law. The plan, required by the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, was the product of more than a year of writing and revision by state officials and over a dozen public hearings.

The federal education department approved most of New York’s vision which aims to move beyond test scores when evaluating schools and places new emphasis on whether schools have the resources they need though they required some changes, which the department first proposed in feedback last month.

One of the revisions affects the way schools are rated when many students refuse to take the state exams. Meanwhile, the federal reviewers did not appear to require changes that could have lowered the state’s graduation rate, which some experts had said was possible under the new law.

Here’s what you need to know about the federal government’s feedback to New York’s plan:

1.) Two testing waivers were rejected

At the same time that New York submitted its ESSA plan, it also requested three testing-related waivers — two of which federal officials shot down on Tuesday.

One of the rejected waivers would have allowed students with significant cognitive disabilities to take tests below their grade level, which New York officials said would have resulted in more accurate measures of their progress. However, special-education advocates and the New York City education department had raised alarms about that request, saying it could lower standards for those students and potentially violate federal law. In denying the request, the U.S. education department appeared to validate those concerns.

The other denied waiver had asked that schools not be held accountable for the English test scores of newly arrived immigrants until after those students had been in the U.S. for three years. Without that exemption, school evaluations will factor in the English scores of students who are still learning that language after their second year in the country.

New York did, however, receive approval for one waiver to allow middle-school students to skip the state’s annual math or science exams if they instead sit for the Regents exams in those subjects, which are required to earn a typical high-school diploma.

2.) A change for schools with high opt-out rates

New York must treat students who boycott state tests as having failed them when evaluating schools’ performance though state officials don’t expect that to trigger interventions for high-performing schools with high opt-out rates.

In its ESSA plan, New York officials had wanted to make sure that schools were not penalized if a large number of students sit out the state exams — as 19 percent of students across the state did last year. To that end, they created two accountability measures — one that counted boycotted exams against a school’s passing rate and another that did not — and allowed schools to use the higher of the two ratings.

But the U.S. education department blocked that methodology, instead requiring the state to treat boycotted exams as the equivalent of failed tests when judging their academic performance. (They are still allowed to use the other metric to evaluate schools, just not under strict federal guidelines for what count as academic measures.)

State education department officials said Wednesday that the changes will like result in slightly lower ratings for schools with high opt-out rates. However, they said they do not expect those schools to face serious consequences as long as they perform well on other metrics.

Lisa Rudley, a founding member of New York State Allies for Public Education, which helped organize the opt-out movement in New York, said she expects the state to protect schools where many students boycott the exams.

Otherwise, she predicted, “There’s going to be outrage.”

3.) New York’s graduation rate is in the clear for now

Federal reviewers could have forced the state to lower its graduation rate, but they appear to have decided against that drastic step.

ESSA requires states to include only diplomas earned by a “preponderance” of students when calculating their graduation rates. Several experts thought New York’s “local diploma,” a less rigorous diploma awarded to only about four percent of students, did not meet that requirement.

If federal officials had agreed, the state could have been forced to recalculate its graduation rate and possibly eliminate some newly created options that allow more students to graduate with local diplomas. However, the officials appear to have let New York’s graduation rate stand with the local diploma in place.

on the market

Albany to Boston? New York education official Angelica Infante-Green in the running to lead Massachusetts schools

PHOTO: Chiefs for Change
Angelica Infante-Green is a finalist to run schools in Massachusetts.

One of New York state’s top education officials is a finalist to take over the leaderless state education department in Massachusetts.

Angelica Infante-Green is one of three finalists to succeed Mitchell Chester, the Massachusetts education commissioner who died unexpectedly in June 2017, according to the Boston Herald.

Infante-Green is a deputy commissioner overseeing instruction in New York’s public schools, where she has recently spearheaded the state’s efforts integrate schools by race and class. Before arriving in Albany in 2013, she oversaw New York City’s efforts to serve to English language learners. In that position, she was responsible for expanding the city’s bilingual and dual-language programs and making sure that immigrant families landed in the best schools for their children.

Infante-Green is the daughter of immigrants from the Dominican Republic, a graduate of New York City schools, and a Teach For America alumna.

When she was teaching, Infante-Green felt “a little frustration in the classroom because there were policies that were being made without really knowing what was happening in the classroom,” she said in a video interview with Chiefs for Change, a national coalition of state and district education leaders that advocates for policy changes to help students. “So I decided that I was going to bring that drive to create change at a different level.”

Infante-Green is part of Chiefs for Change’s “Future Chiefs” program, which aims to cultivate a diverse pipeline of education leaders. She is also is a public school parent of two children; her son attends the first-ever dual-language program for students with autism, which she helped launch.

In an interview with Education Post last year, Infante-Green reflected on how her experiences as a parent, educator, and administrator inform her outlook on education policy.

“I’ve always had a passion for equity because of my own experience. I know firsthand what it’s like to be in a school where there isn’t much support and expectations are low,” Infante Green said in the interview. “If I didn’t have the chance to change schools, I don’t know how I would have ended up. So I work to make sure all kids have the opportunity to thrive.”

Massachusetts would present different challenges for Infante-Green. Schools there are considered the highest-performing in the country, and unlike in New York, the state runs some struggling districts directly.

The other candidates for the Massachusetts job, according to the Boston Herald, are Jeffrey Riley, who leads the state-run Lawrence Public Schools in central Massachusetts; and Penny Schwinn, chief deputy commissioner of academics at the Texas Education Agency. They were selected from 18 applicants and will undergo interviews in Boston next week.

Clarification (Jan. 17, 2018): This story has been updated to clarify the activities of Chiefs for Change, as well as to include Infante-Green’s participation in the Future Chiefs program.