One size fits all

By Marlena Little

If you walked into a department or big-box store about 20 years ago, you were bound to see a shirt or a hat that read “One Size Fits All”. Even if the intentions were good and the singular sizing was meant to accommodate the masses, there were always the outliers – those individuals who couldn’t fit the item of clothing on either side of the spectrum.

As the outliers increased and time moved on, the tagline adapted as well, moving to “One Size Fits Most”.

Even now, there are those who don’t fit in the “most”, those who definitely never fit in the “all”.

Thank goodness we don’t subscribe to the “One Size Fits Most” mantra in education.

Or do we?

The Achievement School District, began as the national model for school turnaround and education reform in Tennessee.  It’s vision to take the bottom 5% of schools in Tennessee, primarily in Memphis, and elevate them to the top 25% in 5 years was ambitious, yet necessary.  For far too long these schools in the bottom 5% underperformed their counterparts and a modification to “business as usual” was essential and crucial to the economic stability of Memphis.  The ASD sought to achieve this goal by governing charter school management organizations/operators who directly ran low-performing schools.

The Achievement School District had 5 years to prove itself.

The five years are now up.

Within the last five years, the Achievement School District has realized some success and faced equal challenges. In 2014, the Center for Reinventing Public Education rated the ASD’s model as “top in the nation”, however, there were still mixed results on the progress of specific schools.  As with any educational reform initiative, the undertaking was not free of challenges.  

What can be true for articles of clothing has proven to not be applicable to the schools of Tennessee.

In education – one size cannot fit all or most.

Commissioner Candice McQueen understands the need for various models of educational reform. There is no “default to the ASD” for low-performing schools. There is no one model that can reach every student, nor is there one type of school that can exist to turn around our lowest performing schools.

Tennessee is in fact in a new era of educational reform.

The Achievement School District’s existence provided proof that there are strategies and structures that can assist the performance of low-achieving schools.  However, it also highlighted the external circumstances that also play a significant role, such as community engagement and low enrollment.

The end of an era is indeed near.

As with the end, there is always a new beginning.

The end of the Achievement School District’s era of school reform may be ending but it’s not over for the students and families they serve(d). The thirst for research-based interventions and strategies is still present, with more programs committed to teacher and leader preparation and effectiveness. More charter schools and operators are diligent in offering various educational models that are focused and specific, catering to a smaller pool of students, but doing so with depth and breadth of programming.  The presence of the ASD has also, directly or indirectly, resulted in the improvement of the local school district, which is a win for all.  

The new era of educational reform will lend itself to a world of new outcomes. This new era of educational reform must be rooted in being transformative and personalized, as well as being a proponent of lasting and effective change.  The new era of educational reform will be one where students are a priority and educational models are vetted against the community and demographics they serve. Parents will choose the school that best fits their student and will have the opportunity to receive the best education for their children, whether public, private or charter.

The new era of educational reform must not resemble “One Size Fits Most”.  We can’t afford for it to.  



Marlena Little

Educator, visionary and leader.

Marlena Little grew up in the inner-city of Chicago in one of the worst neighborhoods of the city. Yet the contrast of her home and school life provided evidence to the statement, “it’s not where you’ve been but where you are going”. Having attended one of the best elementary and high-schools in the country, she was determined to live beyond the poverty and violence of her neighborhood, knowing education was the escape.

Marlena Little, a Memphian by choice, relocated to Memphis to fight for educational equity. As a teacher, it was important for Marlena’s students to see her as an example of that escape. As an administrator, Marlena challenged teachers and staff to illuminate education as the way out, yet as a visionary, Marlena has created paths of escape.

As Founder of Life Prep Academy Schools, Marlena Little has seamlessly merged her childhood with the standard of excellence imbedded in her educational experiences to provide students, regardless of any “label”, the limitless opportunities a high-quality education affords.  Her philosophical beliefs about education are the guiding principles of Life Prep.

In addition to her many roles, Marlena Little is also a mother and forever learner.  She is a Doctoral Candidate in Educational Leadership and has the pleasure of raising a nine-year-old daughter.