Race to the Bottom: ASD

Earlier this month, Nashville school board member Will Pinkston released his report on Tennessee’s Race to the Top Experience. Included in his analysis was a discussion of Tennessee’s struggling Achievement School District (ASD).

Here’s more on the troubled turnaround effort:

The controversial Achievement School District, created by Race to the Top to take over and turn around persistently failing schools, saw its fortunes nosedive.

YES Prep, the Houston-based charter chain founded by ASD chief Chris Barbic, announced in March 2015 that it would not proceed with turnaround work in Memphis — based on a lack of community support for the ASD. At the same time, traditional schools in Memphis suddenly began to outperform ASD schools, calling into question the turnaround model.

That summer, Barbic threw in the towel. The soft-spoken, congenial reformer — who a year earlier, under stress, had suffered a heart attack — wrote an open letter explaining the rationale behind his departure. Understandably, his reasons for leaving included health and family. On his way out, Barbic also offered a mea culpa of sorts that earned him a little goodwill among public-education advocates and derision among his fellow reformers.

“Let’s just be real,” Barbic said in his letter. “Achieving results in neighborhood schools is harder than in a choice environment.” He added: “As a charter school founder, I did my fair share of chest pounding over great results. I’ve learned that getting these same results in a zoned neighborhood school environment is much harder.”

In 48 words, Barbic eviscerated a key argument by radical reformers. As it turned out, charter schools weren’t the silver-bullet solution. His simple but honest admission was a shot-heard-round-the-world in education circles. And it had the added benefit of being true.

Priority

In September 2018, Chalkbeat reported on the continued struggles of the state’s failing turnaround district:

Most of the schools that were taken over by Tennessee’s turnaround district remain on the state’s priority list six years after the intervention efforts began.

Four of the six original Memphis schools that were taken over by the state in 2012 are on the newest priority list released last week. And more than a dozen schools that were added to the district later also remain on the list.

For years, the district has fallen short of its ambitious promise to dramatically raise test scores at the schools by handing them over to charter operators — a goal that the district’s founder later acknowledged was too lofty. And researchers with the Tennessee Education Research Alliance recently concluded that schools in the state district are doing no better than other low-performing schools that received no state help.

I’ve also written extensively about the ASD’s struggles and even suggested that the real problem was mission creep:

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.

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.

Yes, the ASD is one more example of education policy failure by Team Haslam. Bill Lee and Penny Schwinn have a big mess to clean up — if they’re up to the task.

 

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

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Not Working

That’s the verdict on Tennessee’s Achievement School District from a new study analyzing five years of data and comparing the state-run district to schools receiving no intervention.

Chalkbeat reports:

After five years of trying to turn around low-performing schools, Tennessee’s state-run schools aren’t performing any better than schools that haven’t received any intervention, according to new research released Tuesday.

This story is not surprising to those who’ve been keeping up with the ASD’s antics across multiple Superintendents and two Commissioners of Education.

But, don’t worry — Commissioner McQueen is on the case.

Chalkbeat notes:

In a statement, Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said, “We have not seen the success in the ASD that we want, and that is something we’re addressing.”

 

That’s not exactly reassuring given that McQueen has also repeatedly said she and her department are addressing concerns about TNReady.

This is the same McQueen who is insisting Shelby County place additional schools under the control of the failing ASD.

I reported on research from Gary Rubinstein back in February that told a familiar story:

Though my own calculations made it clear that the six original ASD schools had not made it out of the bottom 5% after six years, it doesn’t become ‘official’ until Tennessee releases its next ‘Priority List’ which it does every three years.  But a few days ago, they released something just as good, the so-called ‘Cusp List’ showing all the schools in the bottom 10% which includes what percentile each school is at.

Here are the results:

School Percentile
Cornerstone 8.2%
Brick Church 4.3%
Humes (closed down and became Frayser Achievement Elementary School 1.3%
Corning 2.2%
Frayser 1.3%
Westside 2.2%

The report out of Vanderbilt confirms what many observers have been saying all along: The ASD is not working. It’s not helping kids. It’s disruptive and problematic.

We don’t need more mission creep, we need a plan that helps kids — you know, like the district-run iZone that’s actually getting results.

 

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


 

McQueen: Do It My Way

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said yesterday that despite a desire to move a struggling Memphis middle school into a proven local turnaround model managed by the district, she is insisting the school be moved into the failing Achievement School District (ASD).

Chalkbeat reports:

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said Thursday that American Way Middle School must be converted to a charter school in the fall of 2019 under the state’s new accountability plan. If Shelby County Schools doesn’t decide by March 15 to do that on its own, she said, the state will take over the school and move it to Tennessee’s Achievement School District.

While the Shelby County Schools iZone has been lauded for achieving solid results, the state’s ASD hasn’t gotten the job done. In fact, of the original schools taken over by the ASD five years ago, all but one remain in the bottom 5% of all schools in the state. That is, there’s be no significant improvement in performance.

So, why is Candice McQueen hellbent on moving American Way into a failed reform model? The Shelby County School Board has taken corrective action and set the school on a path that has gotten proven results at other schools. Further, McQueen’s chosen intervention is one that’s simply not getting results.

Will lawmakers in Nashville take action to stop this move? So far, efforts to rein-in the ASD have been met with significant resistance. However, the lack of a successful TNReady administration has hampered the ASD’s growth. McQueen says that will no longer be a problem:

The commissioner said the state’s decision to delay school takeover until 2019 is due to delayed test scores from the state. That won’t be the case in the next round of sorting schools into various “improvement tracks” under the state’s new school accountability plan. The state’s next list of its lowest performing schools is scheduled to be released next fall, which will inform decisions for future improvement plans.

Let’s be clear: Candice McQueen has presided over a failed transition to a new test and an aggressive intervention model for struggling schools that has left kids behind. Now, she’s insisting that Shelby County do what she says. Why would anyone trust their district’s students to Candice McQueen’s judgment?

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


 

Not Exactly Working

I wrote last week about research from Gary Rubinstein indicating the Achievement School District was underachieving. Now, additional research suggests the ASD is not living up to the hype.

WMOT has more:

Dr. Henry (Vanderbilt education researcher) notes that after five years of operation only one ASD school improved to the point that it could be returned to local control. He says the remaining schools haven’t gotten any worse, but haven’t gotten any better either.

Dr. Henry’s research suggests the primary reason for ASD’s failure is an extremely high teacher turnover rate. He says the special district loses up to half of its teachers every year.

Both high teacher turnover and removing schools from district control seem to be key factors inhibiting ASD success, Henry suggests. This means all that disruption caused by the ASD is not having the desired impact.

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


 

The (Under) Achievement School District

Turns out, all that mission creep over at the Achievement School District (ASD) is really just creepy. Oh, and disruptive. And also not really all that helpful for kids. But, hey, they’ve got cool happy hours!

Gary Rubinstein has the latest update on how the ASD is doing relative to stated policy goals. Spoiler alert: Not good.

Here’s some of his analysis:

Though my own calculations made it clear that the six original ASD schools had not made it out of the bottom 5% after six years, it doesn’t become ‘official’ until Tennessee releases its next ‘Priority List’ which it does every three years.  But a few days ago, they released something just as good, the so-called ‘Cusp List’ showing all the schools in the bottom 10% which includes what percentile each school is at.

Here are the results:

School Percentile
Cornerstone 8.2%
Brick Church 4.3%
Humes (closed down and became Frayser Achievement Elementary School 1.3%
Corning 2.2%
Frayser 1.3%
Westside 2.2%

So, yeah. Not really moving the original schools into the top 25% of all Tennessee schools. At all. The best result was a single school moving from the bottom 5% all the way up to the bottom 9%. The other originals? Still in the bottom 5%.

The ASD’s directors, as Rubinstein notes, just keep moving on to new opportunities. The students in the ASD experiment don’t have that option, though.

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


 

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