Crystal Ball

Tennessee’s Achievement School District (ASD), a state-run, charter-centric school turnaround model, may soon effectively end operations while remaining an intervention option in a vastly restructured format. This according to a recent story in Chalkbeat. The story notes:

Tennessee wants to return 30 state-run schools to local districts in Memphis and Nashville no later than the fall of 2022, but also wants to retain its state-run district to possibly take over other chronically low-performing schools, says a proposal being unveiled this week.

According to a copy of the proposal obtained by Chalkbeat, the transition is part of a massive reset for the embattled turnaround model known as the Achievement School District – made up mostly of charter organizations – which has fallen woefully short of its goal to improve student performance since launching in 2012. 


If only there had been some sort of warning early on, perhaps all of this could have been avoided. You know, like someone objectively observing the results of the ASD and the behavior of the district’s leaders and reporting on likely outcomes. Someone who in 2015 wrote something like this:

Instead, the ASD has followed a rather bumpy path, growing while struggling to meet performance goals. The ASD needs growth of 8-10 points a year in the schools it operates in order to hit its targets — and it is well below that number now. That may be in part due to the rapid growth beyond original expectations.

Here’s something that should give policymakers pause: According to the most recent State Report Card, the ASD spends more than $1000 per student MORE than district schools and yet gets performance that is no better than (and sometimes worse) the district schools it replaced.

Immediately after my ASD Mission Creep story was published, a high-level ASD staffer asked me to coffee so he could extol the virtues of the ASD leadership team and let me know I had it wrong. If the ASD stayed the course, I was assured, lots of positive things would happen for kids. Just a few months later, the ASD’s first Superintendent, Chris Barbic, would leave his position and Tennessee. Not long after, the staffer who chastised me for having the gall to point out the facts had also left the Tennessee kids he was so allegedly passionate about helping.


While it is nice to be right about a prediction, I am not excited about this news. Yes, I’m hopeful that the transition described will ultimately be positive. But, I’m also concerned about what happens to the kids currently in ASD schools. Additionally, I’m sad for the kids who were part of a failed, 10-year experiment. Here’s a note from the Chalkbeat piece on what’s next for these kids:

Shuffling schools and students among districts also creates a level of chaos that can be harmful to kids and teachers, said Regenia Dowell, president of a parent-teacher-student organization in Frayser, a Memphis community with eight achievement schools.

Would this type of repeated disruption be allowed in a district of wealthy white children? Chaos. You have chaos when a school gets moved into the ASD and converts to a charter. You have chaos when a charter operator decides to opt-out of the ASD just before an academic year starts — or, worse, in the middle of a school year. You have chaos when there’s no clear plan to return schools to district operators. You have chaos when you spend ten years on an experiment that fails to move the needle for kids. It’s not like we don’t know what the challenges are OR how to address them:

Addressing poverty would mean providing access to jobs that pay a living wage as well as ensuring every Tennessean had access to health care. Our state leads the nation in number of people working at the minimum wage. We lead the nation in medical debt. We continue to refuse Medicaid expansion and most of our elected leaders at the federal level are resisting the push for Medicare for All.

Meet the New Plan, Same as the Old Plan

The state’s own presentation on the challenges in the ASD notes:

“Despite good intentions, the ASD was implemented (or grew) too quickly,” the state’s presentation says in recapping some of the lessons learned in Tennessee. “Demand outpaced supply and capacity.”

In 2015, I wrote:

The original plan seems sensible: Work with the 13 most persistently low-performing schools, get them on track, and then use strategies learned in the process to help other schools. Meanwhile, Renewal Schools would be operated by districts and implement other turnaround models (think the iZone in Memphis and Nashville).

In other words, sticking with what was written into the Race to the Top legislation regarding the Achievement School District would mean less chaos and more consistent, focused assistance to the schools most in need of help.

It only took 5 more years for the state to actually admit this. And, it will take another two years for schools to transition back to district control.

The one remaining question is: Will this transition be accompanied with the resources and support districts need to actually help kids and their families?

For more on education politics and policy in Tennessee, follow @TNEdReport

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