Peter Greene on the ASD

Education writer Peter Greene takes a look at the history of the Achievement School District and the factors that led to its downfall in a recent piece in Forbes. Here’s more:

To run the ASD, Huffman called on Chris Barbic. Barbic had completed a classroom stint with Teach for America and then gone on to found his own charter management group (YES Prep). Barbic seemed like a strong choice, and he promised to get the job done in five years. After three years, real data was hard to come by, but the best assessments were that the ASD schools were still at the bottom of the pack; the official state list released in spring of 2016 showed that most ASD schools were still in the bottom 5%. But by then, Barbic had resigned.

The ASD grew too quickly. It tried to scale up to the point of being ineffective for some schools. It did a lousy job of listening to the community, and depended too much on folks from outside, instead of growing a local, sustainable support culture. Also, turning around a school takes time.

School takeover models remain one of the great policy artifacts of ed reform hubris, the notion that if we just let the right people grab the wheel, they can fix things right up (because, honestly, the education professionals and experts either don’t know or aren’t trying). But one of the repeated lessons of the last decade is that school turnaround via takeover is really hard to pull off.

MORE on the ASD’s history and why it ultimately failed>

More about the Tennessee Achievement School District:

Crystal Ball

Evidence Be Damned

Not Working

Mission Creep

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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?

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TEA on 2020 School Funding

The Tennessee Education Association is out with an analysis of how revenue estimates from the State Funding Board impact money available for our public schools. Here’s more:

Tennessee is so far behind it would take $1.2 billion annually to reach the Southeast average. The good news is Tennessee has the revenue available to make a $1.2 billion investment in a few years without raising taxes. The bad news is the state follows a budget process that chronically underestimates revenue growth, thus withholding billions from classrooms. 

For five years actual revenue growth was more than double state estimates, leaving $3 billion in surplus while public schools remain under-funded. While state K-12 funding did increase by $700 million over those years, had the state doubled K-12 investment to $1.4 billion, a substantial surplus would still have remained while also moving Tennessee schools out of the bottom 10 in funding. 

There is already a problem with this year’s estimates. The State Funding Board, a panel of constitutional officers and the state finance director, recently approved a growth rate of between 2.7% and 3.1%, well below even the most pessimistic predictions by economists hired by the state. 
It is the lowest rate since 2014, when the board predicted little to no growth. This led then-Gov. Haslam to eliminate a promised $50 million state teacher raise. Actual revenue grew 5% in 2014-2015, leading to a $552 million surplus while teachers got nothing. 

The board also had to increase its growth estimate for 2019-2020, predicting a general fund surplus of $430 – $500 million. Even this upward revision may be far too low. First-quarter general fund growth was 8.1%, more than double the revised estimate, which could generate a surplus up to $900 million. Teachers got $72 million for salaries in this budget. It could have been $272 million.

Governor Bill Lee, House Speaker Cameron Sexton, and House GOP Caucus Chair Jeremy Faison have all suggested this will be the year Tennessee makes a big investment in teacher pay. Will these leaders use low-ball funding board revenue estimates to nix this raise? Or, will they look at historic data suggesting the money is there and use that information to push for a significant boost in pay for teachers and investment in schools?

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30 Years of Lies

A former school superintendent from Ohio exposes 30 years of education policy lies foisted on public schools by policymakers too busy or too self-involved to actually focus on what our kids really need. Here are some highlights:

For at least three decades, politicians have claimed their goal has been to close the achievement gap between children who are successful in school and those who are not, and, by their own admission, their laws haven’t worked. They have failed while wasting billions of our tax dollars.

In the early 1990’s, politicians told us that if they could force all schools to follow the same academic standards, the achievement gap would be eliminated. But, the gap still exists.

Similarly, politicians promised us that forcing kids to take state approved tests, with schools, teachers, and principals being “held accountable” for their students’ performance, the achievement gap would be eliminated. But, the gap still exists.

The public was also assured that if laws were enacted “guaranteeing” that every child must achieve a politically determined level of achievement, all children would be successful. But, the gap still exists.

What are the education policy lies you hear most often?

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Bill Lee’s 2020 Vision Blurred by Voucher Scheme

Governor Bill Lee renewed his commitment to fast-tracking the privatization of public schools in a speech in Jackson where he laid out his policy goals for 2020. Lee doubled-down on support of a voucher scheme that is dividing the state Republican Party. The vote on Lee’s controversial plan remains under investigation by both the FBI and TBI. Here’s more on Lee’s remarks from

The Governor said this year, he’s also optimistic the first Shelby County students in low-achieving public schools will be eligible for an education savings account to cover tuition for private school. SCS leaders opposed vouchers, and the legislation narrowly passed last year.

“Those children who are zoned for those non-performing schools will have an opportunity to have a high-quality education, hopefully starting this fall if that process is rolled out in the way that we hope it will be,” Gov. Lee said.

Lee failed to mention that vouchers have not been proven to help students academically. In fact, there’s growing evidence that voucher schemes actually have a negative academic impact. Neither actual evidence nor the existence of an FBI probe into the vote seems likely to deter Lee from pursuing an agenda that will both cost taxpayers money and actually harm students.

Those following Lee and his alliance with privatizers like Education Secretary Betsy DeVos over the years are not surprised by his antics. In fact, in December of 2018, I noted:

Even though as early as 2016, Bill Lee was extolling the virtues of school voucher schemes and even though he’s a long-time supporter of Betsy DeVos’s pro-voucher Tennessee Federation for Children and even though he has appointed not one, but two voucher vultures to high level posts in his Administration, it is somehow treated as “news” that Bill Lee plans to move forward with a voucher scheme agenda in 2019.

Now, here we are in 2020. Let’s be sure Tennesseans have a clear vision of where Gov. Lee is taking us: Directly down the very expensive road to the privatization of our public schools.

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Penny’s Turnover

WPLN reports on more concerns being raised about Tennessee Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn and turnover in the department she leads. Here’s more:

It’s no secret that the agency is struggling to retain employees. According to data provided by the state, the turnover rate under Commissioner Penny Schwinn’s first nine months is about 18%.

Rep. Gary Hicks, R-Rogersville, told WPLN News he’s been hearing from people in his district about the issues within the state agency and about the concerns of the turnover rate.

“What we have to (do) as legislators is we just monitor the situation and try to figure out what those factors are that’s contributing to the rate that we are seeing,” Hicks said.

Rep. Mark White, R-Memphis, worries about the institutional knowledge in the agency.

“We do have concerns because of the amount of turnover, many from the institutional knowledge that we depend on to get answers,” White, the chairman of the House Education Committee, told WPLN News on Friday.

Earlier concerns raised by department insiders include a lack of readiness for this year’s administration of the TNReady test:

An employee still with the department sums up her concerns by saying, “There is a complete lack of urgency or understanding regarding the human resource needs to launch an effective assessment in support of the districts, schools, teachers, students and parents of Tennessee.”

The legislature reconvenes on January 14th. It will be interesting to see how these concerns are expressed.

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Weingarten Talks DeVos

American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten talks about Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’s attempts to privatize American public education in a recent article in the Guardian. Here are some highlights:

“We’ve had plenty of Republican as well as Democratic secretaries of education but none of them, even those who believed in alternatives to public education, actually tried to eviscerate public education,” said Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers. “Here is someone who in her first budget tried to eliminate every single summer school programme, every single after-school programme, and who has done everything in her power to try to make it harder for us to strengthen public [sector] schools.”

Weingarten commented: “Here you have someone whose job it is to help students, 90% of whom go to public schools in America, and to help students in higher education navigate through their student debt or try to mitigate it. She’s failed on both accounts. Instead, she’s tried to defund and dismantle public education and make it harder for us to help kids in public education.”

Weingarten commented: “I’m not surprised that a judge held her in contempt because, just like her boss, she mocks the rule of law. Her rule is: she’s rich and she’s a believer in her ideology and that should drive it, not her oath of office, not that this is democracy, not that she is the secretary of education. So the mood [among teachers] is: we told you so, we knew she’d be like this.”

MORE on how DeVos is scheming against America’s public schools.

Still, Governor Bill Lee is fully embracing the DeVos agenda in Tennessee. From fast-tracking vouchers to building a slush fund for charter schools, Lee is all-in on DeVos-style dismantling of public education.

Betsy DeVos testifies before the Senate Health, Education and Labor Committee confirmation hearing to be next Secretary of Education on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., January 17, 2017. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas

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