The Data Wars: A New Hope?

The ongoing Data Wars between the state’s two largest school districts and the Tennessee Department of Education continue, with today being the deadline set by Commissioner Candice McQueen for districts to hand over the data or face consequences.

Yesterday, Anna Shepherd and Chris Caldwell, chairs of the Boards of Education in Nashville and Memphis respectively, penned an op-ed detailing their opposition to the data demand from McQueen.

They wrote:

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen has demanded that Metro Nashville Public Schools and Shelby County Schools surrender personal contact information for a large number of students and families in our school systems, which represent approximately 20 percent of Tennessee’s K-12 public school students.

Her argument: A new state law requires us to hand over personal information to ASD charter schools so these taxpayer-funded private schools can use the data to fill thousands of empty seats by recruiting students away from public schools.

In addition to violating student and family privacy — the right to privacy is a fundamental American principle — the problem with McQueen’s data demand is this: The ASD now is universally viewed as a failed experiment in education reform.

Shepherd and Caldwell contend that their district’s students will not be well-served by marketing efforts from charter schools operating under the banner of the Achievement School District:

Instead, McQueen proposes to shift the cost burden of the failing ASD to local taxpayers in Memphis and Nashville. She wants to confiscate our student data and information in order to stage marketing raids on our schools — which would redirect local taxpayer funds to the ASD and its charter operators at the expense of our school systems.

With today’s deadline looming, it appears school leaders in Memphis and Nashville are locked down against releasing the data demanded by McQueen. Should that position hold, the question will be: What will McQueen do about it? Will she unleash her ultimate weapon and withhold state funds from these districts as punishment?

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


 

Next?

Tennessee’s Achievement School District (ASD) is again looking for a Superintendent as it was announced today that current Superintendent Malika Anderson is on her way out.

Chalkbeat has the story:

Malika Anderson, who has sought to steer Tennessee’s school turnaround district to stability after its contentious early work in Memphis and Nashville, is stepping down as its second superintendent at the end of this month.

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen had this to say about the move:

“This transition in no way disrupts our work,” McQueen said in a press release. “We are taking what we have learned about school improvement over the past five years and using that knowledge to maximize students’ success by putting in place a strong set of evidence-based options that will drive improvements in students performance.”

Anderson is the second Superintendent in the ASD’s short history, replacing Chris Barbic. Barbic noted on his departure:

In his email early Friday, Barbic offered a dim prognosis on that pioneering approach. “As a charter school founder, I did my fair share of chest pounding over great results,” he wrote. “I’ve learned that getting these same results in a zoned neighborhood school environment is much harder.”

The ASD has been plagued with both lackluster results and challenges connecting with the communities it serves during its brief but tumultuous existence.

According to the Department of Education’s release, a search will begin immediately for Anderson’s replacement. In the meantime, Deputy Commissioner of Education Kathleen Airhart will serve as Interim Superintendent. Before coming to the Department of Education, Airhart was the Director of Schools in Putnam County.

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


 

New Franchise

I’ve written before about the state’s Achievement School District eyeing Chattanooga for an expansion of it’s reach.

Now, it seems the speculation is nearing an end and Chattanooga will see some form of state intervention. Will it be the major league of the ASD? What seems more likely is a minor league effort, a “partnership zone.”

More from Chalkbeat on how that might work:

In a partnership zone, clusters of schools are essentially turned into mini-school districts that are freed from many local rules and governed jointly by local and state officials. Local leaders get to experiment the same way that charter schools can, but they continue to have a say in how their schools are run. State officials get to push for needed improvements, but they aren’t solely responsible for strong results — something that has proven elusive so far for them.

The partnership zone idea originated in Springfield, Massachusetts, where an “Empowerment Zone” is finishing its second year. There, educators and community leaders who might oppose school takeovers — or be displaced by them — have embraced the zone, which has nine schools and is set to grow. As a result, people there say, changes in schools are gaining traction.

This would mark a change in approach from the ASD’s top-down, low communication, high confrontation efforts in Memphis and Nashville. I’ve previously noted that the ASD is being reined-in after years of an aggressive approach that won the district plenty of enemies while failing to generate measurable results.

Time will tell if the state’s new approach and developmental league effort will be more well-received and/or more successful than the ASD.

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


 

A Little Less Creepy

Two years ago I wrote about Tennessee’s Achievement School District (ASD) creeping beyond its original mission. I noted then that the state’s Race to the Top grant which spawned the ASD envisioned a handful of schools receiving highly targeted attention. I argued that rapid growth and a lack of clear communication contributed to a bumpy start for the turnaround effort. I concluded by offering this suggestion:

By creeping beyond its admirable mission, the ASD has become an example of good intentions gone awry. Focusing on the original goal of using highly focused effort to both improve struggling schools AND learn new strategies to help other schools would be a welcome change.

Now, Grace Tatter of Chalkbeat reports the ASD is being scaled back and re-focused. She notes:

In Tennessee’s plan under the Every Student Succeeds Act, the State Department of Education clipped the ASD’s wings with new policies approved this spring by the legislature. They address longstanding concerns, including complaints that the state district had moved beyond its original purpose, lacked a clear exit strategy, and didn’t give local districts enough time to execute their own turnaround plans.

McQueen also announced plans to downsize the ASD’s structure this summer by slashing its team and merging several ASD-related offices in Memphis.

It will be interesting to watch how the “new” ASD evolves. Will it really focus on building partnerships and clear communication? Or, will it revert back to the posturing that caused problems as it grew in Memphis?

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


 

You’ve Been Warned

MNPS Board Members Will Pinkston and Christiane Buggs wrote a column for the Atlanta Journal Constitution urging voters in Georgia to reject that state’s effort to create an Opportunity School District modeled after Tennessee’s struggling Achievement School District.

Here’s some of what they had to say:

Under this hostile approach, the ASD rips schools from their communities and hands them over to charter operators that convert them into taxpayer-subsidized private schools. Rather than sticking to a limited scope with a baker’s dozen schools, as originally envisioned, the ASD now has nearly 30 schools in its purview — and it’s expanding every year in ill-advised ways.

They also pointed to a recent Vanderbilt study to note the ASD’s lack of results:

If the ASD actually was working, some of it might be defensible. But research by Vanderbilt University shows the ASD is failing. The online news outlet Chalkbeat recently reported that a locally led school-turnaround initiative in Memphis has “sizable positive effects on student test scores, while the ASD’s effects are marginal.”

Tennessee’s ASD came about as a result of legislative approval of the (ultimately winning) Race to the Top application. As Buggs and Pinkston note, in its current form, the ASD has moved beyond the original vision. In doing so, the ASD has encountered problems that include troubling audit findings and a struggle to demonstrate results.

Georgia voters get to weigh-in on whether or not their state creates an ASD clone. Buggs and Pinkston offer a cautionary tale of well-intentioned reform gone wrong.

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


 

Sam Stockard on the ASD Party

Sam Stockard takes on the party atmosphere at the TN Achievement School District (ASD) in his latest column.

Here’s some of what he had to say:

The General Assembly formed ASD in fiscal 2011, and it was allowed to operate “autonomously in all respects, thus preventing the department’s prompt recognition and reaction to ASD’s administrative actions,” the report states. In 2013, the Department of Education even allowed the district to move its financial operations into a separate accounting system.

Isn’t that convenient.

In fact, audits done in 2013, 2014 and 2015 on ASD’s use of federal money showed deficiencies in internal controls and noncompliance with federal programs, “resulting in approximately $721,000 of federal questioned costs.”

Read more about the parties and other expenses at ASD while students were busy in schools run by charter operators — schools that failed to move the needle much in terms of student achievement.

MORE ON THE ASD:

WTF ASD?

Chattanooga in Talks for Expansion Team

A Friendly Reminder

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


 

WTF ASD?

On the heels of announcing bold expansion plans that may take it to Chattanooga, the Tennessee Achievement School District received some bad news from state auditors.

Andy Sher at the Chattanooga Times-Free Press reports:

The audit said that the Comptroller’s office has previously “reported deficiencies in ASD’s internal controls and noncompliance with federal program requirements, resulting in approximately $721,000 of federal questioned cost.”

Sher notes:

On March 30, 2016, the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Inspector General, released an audit of Tennessee’s Race to the Top grant, which included funds spent by the ASD.

“This federal audit identified similar internal control deficiencies and areas of federal noncompliance with the Race to the Top grant at ASD,” the latest Comptroller notes. “During our current audit, we continued to find similar issues relating to fiscal deficiencies and noncompliance, but we have also identified new areas of deficiencies related to human resources and purchasing cards.”

At a legislative hearing today, Tennessee Department of Education Deputy Commissioner and Chief Operating Officer Kathleen Airhart told lawmakers that as of July 1, the Department now oversees the ASD’s finances. Airhart said the problems in the audit have been addressed.

Who could have guessed that a school district that spends its funds on cocktail receptions and then hides the social media invite when called out would have problems with fiscal management?

Not to worry, though, now the Department of Education is overseeing ASD operations. Yes, the same group that brought Tennessee the not-so-impressive TNReady rollout is now managing the ASD’s fiscal policy.

Sher called the ASD’s financial management “chaotic” in his article.

The reality is, the entire ASD has been chaotic and rather disruptive.

Auditors are in the business of finding mistakes, of course. It would be one thing if the ASD had a stellar track record of proven results and could blame the audit findings on an unrelenting focus on student success. Unfortunately, the evidence so far suggests otherwise.

So, you have a state-run school district that is failing to produce promised results at the same time it’s spending money with little oversight. So far, that hasn’t resulted in a halt to the ASD’s expansion plans.

Will 2017 be the year the legislature finally regains control of the district it created?

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


 

 

 

Chattanooga in Talks for Expansion Team

The state’s fourth-largest school district will soon be in talks to become the next location of an expansion franchise in the school takeover league known as the Achievement School District (ASD). With 33 schools under its control, the ASD is considered the major league in the school takeover world.

Laura Faith Kebede reports on this development at Chalkbeat:

Leaders of the Achievement School District will begin talks with district and community leaders in Hamilton County in the coming months, according to Robert S. White, the ASD’s chief of external affairs.

The development comes despite a lack of current data due to the failure of this year’s administration of TNReady.

League leaders say a lack of data won’t slow them down as they aggressively pursue expansion in 2018 and beyond:

The ASD’s next steps have been made more challenging by the lack of test score data across Tennessee due the state’s late-spring cancellation of most of its TNReady tests. But after the hiatus year, White said he expects the state-run district to continue to take control of priority schools, even as the state rolls out a new assessment by a new test maker this coming year.

“You won’t see that two years in a row,” he said of the takeover hiatus.

The league also didn’t rule out an expansion in Nashville, where a contentious battle in 2014 resulted in Neely’s Bend Middle School “winning” ASD franchise status.

Despite an initial plan focused on stellar turnarounds of struggling schools, the ASD has a reputation for taking low-performing schools, handing them over to charter-operator general managers, and watching as the results are rarely better than under previous management teams.

The Memphis franchise(s) have been plagued with unrest from “fans” expecting the league to live up to its promises.

In fact, one local group has asked the league to stop looking to Memphis for new expansion teams. Due to what it considers market saturation, that’s a request the league is likely to honor in the short term.

Meanwhile, Chattanooga awaits word regarding which eligible school(s) could get the call from the school takeover major league.

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


 

TC Takes on the ASD

Nashville parent and blogger TC Weber attended the National Charter School Conference in June and has some thoughts on a panel that featured Tennessee’s Achievement School District (ASD).

Specific to Tennessee, Weber notes comments by the ASD’s Superintendent, Malika Anderson:

Malika Anderson spoke next and spun the narrative that the Achievement School District was a success in Tennessee because schools in Memphis’s Innovation Zone, or iZone as it’s commonly referred to, along with statewide priority schools, were performing so well. She stated that schools had years to improve and had failed to do so until now, and it was only because of the fear of a state takeover that made this happen. She glossed over how far the ASD was from reaching their goals. She completely ignored the fact that many were ready to see the ASD go the way of the RSD and have schools brought back under local oversight. Her argument was that in spite of failing to make real progress, the ASD should still be rewarded with more time for inspiring through fear.

TC provides a comprehensive analysis of the ASD session and issues a warning for other states considering adopting a similar reform model. It’s all well worth a read.

More on the ASD:

A Friendly Reminder

Rhetoric vs. Reality: ASD Edition

So, About the ASD

Tennessee Thunderdome

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


 

A Friendly Reminder

The National Charter Schools Conference is in Nashville this week and includes a number of sessions, including one highlighting the work of the Tennessee Achievement School District.

Here’s how that session is described:

From Recovery to Extraordinary: States and Charter Schools Working Together

The Louisiana Recovery School District and the Tennessee Achievement School District have brought new attention to the role that charter schools can play in replacing poor performing schools. They have also tested the theory that the freedoms associated with chartering can in fact benefit those who are the most at risk. This panel will explore the role that charters have played in serving the hardest to educate and what policymakers should consider to better serve these students.

This session happened today and included a presentation from TN ASD Superintendent Malika Anderson.

It’s interesting that the TN ASD is pitched as a success story, given that the results have been mixed at best.

In fact, the community at Neely’s Bend in Nashville was not too happy about being thrown into a sort of Thunderdome for school survival back in 2014. But it seems unlikely that Anderson mentioned that.

The ASD community relations effort in Memphis has been so bad that the local NAACP chapter has called for a moratorium on expansion there.

There’s also been some pretty thorough analysis of what appeared to be a rigged Neighborhood Advisory Committee process.

Then, there’s the Vanderbilt University study that suggests the ASD isn’t quite getting the promised results:

While there were some changes year-to-year — up and down — there was no statistical improvement on the whole, certainly not enough to catapult these low-performing schools into some of the state’s best, which was the lofty goal.

This followed a report by Gary Rubinstein noting the ASD’s numbers simply aren’t that great:

As you can see, four of the original six schools are still in the bottom 5% while the other two have now ‘catapulted’ to the bottom 6%.

Oh, and that Neely’s Bend school that was taken over by ASD-approved operator LEAD? Turns out, it was turning around on it’s own and performing better than many ASD schools:

Neely’s Bend is showing a growth rate well above the district average and has posted consecutive years of growth in both Math and Science, with some pretty solid numbers in Science over the past two years.

While testing chaos has been cited as a reason to pause ASD expansion plans for the moment, it’s also been noted that the ASD has moved beyond the original, planned mission:

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.

The point is this: The Tennessee ASD is hardly a success story. It’s a great story of PR spin and fun cocktail parties, but the actual results are limited, at best. And, it’s operated with quite a bit of controversy in both Memphis and Nashville. It’s never a good plan to pit one school against another in a fight for education survival. And it is certainly not clear that the ASD plan is better than the turnaround that was already occurring at Nashville’s Neely’s Bend.

Those looking to Tennessee for guidance on how to create an “Achievement School District” would be best served using our state’s experience as a guide for what not to do.

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