I’ve been meaning to write something about the fight in Georgia against a pending constitutional amendment that would allow the state to take over struggling school districts for a while, but I’ve been a bit busy. Georgia, you have been on my mind though. You see, the Georgia initiative to create an Opportunity School District, essentially a state-sanctioned method for charter school conversion, is modeled after those in Tennessee and Louisiana. Having watched these colossal failures from the front row over the last several years, I can safely say if there is one thing I know a little about, it’s an Achievement School District, or as I like to say, an underachievement district. After all, I’ve been writing about them for years and years now. The concept itself has been flawed since its beginnings.
Back in 2015, former Tennessee Department of Education head Kevin Huffman and former Achievement School District (ASD) head Chris Barbic found themselves with a little time on their hands and a sinking realization that their legacy was springing leaks. Since Tennessee citizens were getting better at rebuffing Huffman’s and Barbic’s efforts, the only option was for these guys to hit the road and start selling franchises before it all fell apart at home. First, Huffman went to Pennsylvania. Then, this past July, lawmakers were convinced to add a franchise in North Carolina, though there were reservations. Of course it took the fast-becoming-normal influx of outside money to get it done. For some reason, Nevada thought this concept was a good idea despite all the evidence to the contrary. Doesn’t anybody read any more? And then most recently, Huffman joined with old friend and former Louisiana State Superintendent Paul Pastorek to sell some snake oil to Georgia.
On November 8, Georgia residents will head to the polls, and, along with their presidential vote, will decide on whether or not to give the state the power to take over so-called failing schools. As a parent of two children who attend a school that sits right outside the periphery of the priority school list, I urge you reject this idea. No matter what they try to tell you, the Achievement School District in Tennessee has been an unmitigated failure. The only thing the ASD has been successful at is creating another government entity rife with financial mismanagement and becoming an endless source of debate as they constantly change goals.
As I said earlier, I’ve got two children in a school that for all intents and purposes is a “priority school,” and I hate that term. First of all, I believe all schools should be “Priority Schools,” meaning that we should make it a priority that all schools have the resources they need. Taking schools and ranking them while ignoring their resource shortfalls gives us an inaccurate portrait of our educational system and allows us to ignore societal issues that need addressing. The focus becomes not on actual learning, but rather on standardized test results. I know the two should be the same, but unfortunately we all know they are not. Ranking schools in this manner further exacerbates an inequitable education experience for children because the emphasis becomes getting off the list versus providing the best possible well-rounded educational experience for all children.
Let’s look at Nashville, for example. Currently, we have 11 schools on the state’s priority list. At a recent school board meeting, the newest plan was unveiled to rescue these priority schools. One of the elements of the plan was that we were no longer going to call underperforming schools “priority schools.” We were now going to refer to them as “innovation schools” because “priority” conveyed a sense of failure and punishment. That’s fine, you can change the language – something the reform movement is particularly adept at – but the state will still refer to these schools as priority schools. And if they fail to improve, the state will reassign them to the state’s innovation zone, the Achievement School District, which has proven to be not so innovative after all. Their idea of innovation has more to do with growing the charter sector than with their stated goal of moving the bottom 5% of schools to the top 25%. Any local action is potentially neutered by the vulture on its perch waiting to pounce.
So if an ASD-type program gets approved in your state, what follows is a plan of action that focuses on getting these schools to show growth in the only measurement that matters to the state, the standardized test. Want to take a class on a field trip to the state museum? Well, that’s great, but how’s that going to improve literacy scores? Want to teach a novel to your class? Yeah, that’s nice, but we have other strategies that’ll have a bigger impact on test scores and we’d prefer you utilize that time for them. Thank God there are still teachers willing to buck the system or it would be test prep all the time, which is basically already happening in a lot of places.
Presently the test score that really matters is the literacy score. On paper this may be a good thing until we see what it can mean in practice. Since there is a limited amount of time in the day, and there is a desire to focus on literacy, something has to give – like math. For example, my daughter is in the district’s gifted program. What got her there is her math aptitude. She scored in the 97th percentile in math. Though she is currently reading several levels above grade level, I worry that is coming at the expense of math instruction. This is no way indicative of the teachers or leadership at her school. One thing my children have been blessed with is the level of instructional quality they are receiving; in other words, they have had great teachers. But the reality is when you force mandates on people without recognizing what’s really happening on the ground, there can be serious unintended consequences. In an effort to “save” children, the presence of the ASD is actually having the opposite effect.
That reality may end up forcing me to reconsider where my daughter attends school. A school which with we are extremely satisfied. There are things that happen at their school daily that make my children better people. But if she’s unable to get the needed math instruction for her inherent gifts to flourish due to the ASD vulture sitting over the school, is the trade off acceptable? Furthermore, if I move my children, that would alter the school’s demographics, which in turn would have the potential to result in lower scores for the school, which would result in further misperceptions and potentially further punitive actions. So it’s not an easy decision. Because of this state entity, the ASD, and their ability to take over their choice of low-performing schools, not only are my children unable to get an equitable education at a school we love because they are worried about a possible takeover, but it may not even become a viable choice if they do get taken over by the ASD. And we are left feeling powerless as a result. And that’s how segregation works under the guise of choice.
MNPS’s innovation school department will have a laser-like focus on the innovation schools, watching them to see if test scores increase. The state will let you play with the language all you want as long as schools are moving off the naughty list. Since test scores are the measurement used by the state, these “innovation” schools will have additional resources thrown at them with the intent of raising test scores. Meanwhile, there is a whole other category of schools that need additional resources every bit as badly, but they are not in danger of being taken over, so they have to wait because again, there are a limited number of resources and the presence of the ASD has dictated the priority.
This all feels like Groundhog Day for me because I had this same argument back in 2014. At least at that time some people listened and created supports for those schools that sit outside of the innovation zone, but now we are going backwards again. We are creating an endless supply of low performing schools – there will always be a bottom 5% of schools, after all. This is good for those who make their living off of and build their brand on the “turning around” of schools, but is it good for kids? Kids may become better readers, but what about all the other experiences that children in higher performing schools are exposed to? I’ve long said this model of education creates two life tracks for students: those in lower income schools become the laborers and those in the higher income schools become management. After all, when was the last time an achievement district sought to takeover a school in the suburbs?
Without the Achievement School District, schools would have the ability to provide greater services and work to make the experience more equitable for all children. We always say there is no one-size-fits-all remedy; well, if an ASD takeover wasn’t looming over them, schools might have a better chance of finding solutions to their individual challenges. If you doubt my words, all you have to do is listen to the words of the ASD as they laud their punitive powers as a factor in the success that struggling schools in Tennessee are experiencing in an attempt to distract from the lagging scores in the schools under their supervision. It’s kind of like the “I’m not doing my job because I’m making sure you do your job, and I deserve credit because you’re doing so well” argument. Try it at work sometime. Let me know how it works.
Georgia really is in a unique situation as its citizens head to the polls next month. They have clear examples of what doesn’t work and what other states think will work. Louisiana is exiting the achievement district business at the same time Milwaukee also rejected this model in order to commit to creating more Community Schools. As more and more eyes are waking up to the power of community schools, Georgia voters need to ask themselves if they want to be at the back of the train or at the front. Voting to open a new franchise when the original franchise is closing due to ineffective business practices doesn’t seem like a good move to me, but that’s the beauty of democracy – voters get to decide.
I understand and appreciate people’s desire to do more for kids who live in poverty and if the Achievement School District was having positive results I would be supportive. But it’s not and in the process is creating a wedge in communities. It’s important that we do everything we can to help them break the vicious cycle of poverty. But in doing so, we need to make sure that in executing our good intentions, we aren’t exacerbating the situation. Truth is, we know what works. We just need the will to do it. Pasi Sahlberg, one of the leading Finnish authorities on education, recently spoke at an education summit in Birmingham, Alabama. In his speech, he outlined four areas to improve student outcomes:
However, “schools must be funded fairly,” said Sahlberg, starting on a list of four main recommendations. “Alabama needs fairer funding. You need ‘positive discrimination’ – more resources to schools with more difficult circumstances.”
The second: “Teachers must work together” and have real control over their days.
Lesson Three gleaned from decades of international research: “Children must play. It breaks my heart that so many kids today in America have no recess during the school day.”
Fourthly and finally, “Healthy students make better learners. We need to think of the health and happiness of the child as part of education policy. We need to teach healthy living as a skill. And not just in one middle-school class.”
He pointed out that large numbers of U.S. students miss school because of toothaches. In Finland, he says, that’s unheard of because dental care is part of school. “If you don’t have [health care] in schools,” he says, “I don’t see how America can be great.”
I challenge you to tell me which one of these items is addressed by the creation of an Achievement School District, or for that matter, an Innovation Zone. These four recommendations strike me as just common sense, and any teacher in the U.S. would tell you the same thing. They are also tenets of the community schools model. Ironically, these are all ideas developed based on research done in America, but as Sahlberg states, “It seems other nations are better at implementing American ideas than America is.” Voters of Georgia, I hope you help start a reversal of that trend.