That was the theme of an event last night sponsored by Tennesseans Reclaiming Education Excellence (TREE) and Gideon’s Army for Children and held at the East Park Community Center.
The event featured parent activist Karran Harper Royal of New Orleans and Dr. Kristen Buras, a professor at Georgia State University who has studied the Recovery School District in New Orleans.
Between 60 and 70 people were in attendance for the event, including MNPS School Board members Will Pinkston, Amy Frogge, Jill Speering, and Anna Shepherd.
The event coincides with a discussion happening in East Nashville regarding MNPS Director of Schools Jesse Register’s proposal to create an “all choice” zone for schools there. Parent advocacy group East Nashville United has been critical of the plan and continues to ask for more information. For their part, MNPS says it wants to continue dialogue on the issue.
Royal spoke first and outlined the systematic takeover of schools in New Orleans by the Recovery School District. The Recovery School District is the nation’s first charter-only district. The takeover began with a state law that allowed for the takeover of low-performing schools, similar to a Tennessee law that allows the Achievement School District to takeover low-performing schools.
As schools were taken over, they were handed over to charter operators or reconstituted with charter management. Entire staffs were fired and replaced and students were moved to different locations.
Royal said some of the successes claimed by the RSD are deceptive because the district would close schools, move out the students, and bus in new students. Then, the RSD would claim they had improved the school when achievement numbers were released even though those numbers were not from the students who had been attending when the school was taken over.
Royal also claimed that the choice of a neighborhood school was foreclosed for many families, but that in two majority-white ZIP codes, families are still able to choose a school close to their home.
Buras used her time to expand on an op-ed she wrote earlier this year about the parallels between New Orleans and Nashville. She pointed to data suggesting that the RSD has done no better than the previous district in terms of overall student achievement. This point is especially important because the RSD has had 9 years to show results. Tennessee’s ASD has also shown disappointing results, though it is only now in its third year of operation.
Among the statistics presented by Buras:
- In 2011-12, 100% of the 15 state-run RSD schools assigned a letter grade for student achievement received a D or F
- 79% of the 42 charter RSD schools assigned a letter grade recieved a D or F
- RSD schools open less than three years are not assigned a letter grade
- Studies of student achievement data have shown no impact on overall student achievement and some even show a widening of the achievement gap
Buras also noted that the RSD was used as a tool to bust the teachers’ union. The district fired some 7500 teachers and new teachers in the RSD report to charter operators. The resulting turnover means nearly 40% of the city’s teachers have been teaching for 3 years or less.
Both Royal (who was at one time on the RSD Advisory Board) and Buras noted that the RSD started with the mission of improving existing schools in New Orleans. However, like the ASD in Tennessee, the RSD began gradually acquiring new schools before data was available to indicate success.
The presentations served as a warning to parents in Nashville that while reform and innovation can be exciting, it is also important to closely monitor school takeovers and choice options to ensure they meet the community’s needs.
It’s also worth noting that the experiment in New Orleans and the ASD’s experience in Memphis on a smaller scale both indicate that just offering more choice does not solve education problems or improve student achievement. Any plan or innovation must take into account community input and feedback. Additionally, while choice plans are often sold on the perceived benefits, it is important to be mindful of potential drawbacks, including disruption and instability in communities that badlyneed stability and support.
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