The TN ASD: In search of a friend


Need-To-Make-MoneyA number of months ago I poised the tongue-in-cheek  question, “Who actually likes the Tennessee Achievement School District”? Little did I know how much truth was in that question. It is certainly not the people of Memphis or Nashville, who have loudly rejected the ASD take overs of their schools. You can’t count the three charter operators, Frayser Community Schools, Green Dot, and KIPP, who recently changed their planned level of participation in the ASD. The Tennessee Comptroller’s office can’t be too enamored, as their audit revealed multiple instances of financial mismanagement. Apparently there are not too many friends at the State House either, as 22 bills were introduced this session to either limit or do away with the ASD.  Now, the latest tree has fallen: YES Prep decided to pull out of the Tennessee Achievement School District.

This is a huge deal because YES Prep is a charter organization that Tennessee Achievement School District head Chris Barbic helped found in 1998. They’ve been very successful in Houston and agreed to open two schools in Memphis in August. You can’t help but think their relationship with Barbic helped facilitate this move. However, now that they’ve gotten a little bit more of the lay of the land, they are having second thoughts about the move. Chris Barbic might have thought that the Memphis parent protests were no big deal, but apparently, along with a changing financial picture, made YES Prep a bit uneasy, as they’ve decided to pack up and move back to Texas. This is akin to a son telling his father he doesn’t want to go into the family business. It’s got to sting.

Part of the hang-up was over a proposed turnaround strategy called a phase-in plan. With a phase-in plan, a charter takes over one grade at a time per year until eventually they take over the whole school. This is strategy that charter operators might find beneficial, but I doubt those outside the grade being taken over feel the same way. These students, the ones not being “taken over”, are left in limbo as the district knows that the school will soon be the charter’s responsibility, and therefore there is not a lot of incentive to invest in the school and its remaining students. Memphis was not a fan of the phase-in strategies. Parents and administrators had grown weary of students attending a school where some students were granted more resources than others due to the charter status. In response to parental concern’s, Memphis created a policy that would force YES Prep to send students in the non-targeted grades to other campuses. This caused further resistance from a community that was already wary.

In discussing these models, we must never lose sight of the fact that these “low-performing schools” are also largely high poverty schools. This disruption can create challenges that parents are ill prepared for. Imagine if you were told that not only is your child’s school being taken over by the state, but since your child is in a non-targeted grade, he’ll be attending another campus that might not be very convenient for you and furthermore, may create a financial burden. Charter schools like to compare themselves to rescue boats for the Titanic. Well, this is an example of them deciding who gets the rescue boat and who gets the anchor.

YES Prep’s Memphis director Bill Durbin stated, “For the last year, we’ve had a team on the ground doing all that due diligence to be prepared to run schools this fall. In doing all that due diligence we obviously came to the realization that a bunch of factors have changed in the past few years that don’t lead us to believe we can deliver on the promise that we made when we were approved two years ago”. Chris Barbic’s response: “Not everyone is cut out for this work.”

Meanwhile, families in a Memphis neighborhood are left scratching their head and wondering where their children will be attending school next year. This is a serious problem. One that could have been avoided, but is indicative of an issue with the whole charter movement. Charter schools are accountable to their board of directors, but not the community or anyone else.

Reformers like to lament how hard it is to close a failing school, but in my eyes not being able to whimsically close a school is a good thing. Schools are meant to be more than just places for students to learn to read and add. They are meant to be cornerstones of communities that reflect the values of those communities and serve as a source of stability. Take for example Glencliff High School here in Nashville. Glencliff High School will most likely still be here, barring catastrophe, when my children are ready to attend. I know alumni and current students from Glencliff. They make up my community and we have a shared social currency. Glencliff as a public school helps preserve this social currency. It is a source of stability in a neighborhood that has seen many fluctuations. But the charter movement does not offer the same steadying influence.

Charter schools are not government entities; they are private. Therefore they are governed by private interests. If the job gets too difficult, they can close. If the profit margin gets too small, they can close. If they don’t like the model that the local school district proposes, they can close. There is nothing that guarantees that the school that’s educating your oldest child will be the one educating your youngest, or even that the one responsible for your oldest child’s education will be the one responsible next year.

Most parents would find this problematic, but not Chris Barbic. He’s more concerned about growth. In his eyes the ASD needs to have the ability to go out and recruit more kids. Apparently he doesn’t see how this would create more instability. When he pulls kids out of their local district, that means less money for the local district. Less money means more potentially failing schools, which translates into more schools to be potentially handed over to charter operators. Schools that may or may not be open on that first day of school in August. Barbic is so committed to this vision that he’s willing to support attaching a bill to allow expanded enrollment for the ASD to a completely unrelated bill, a bill with universal support that would give cover to the ASD, which does not enjoy universal support. With shenanigan’s like this, you can’t help but wonder how much of this is all about the money, especially now that the Race To The Top money has dried up.

The Achievement School District was created out of the Race To The Top application. Its creators saw it as a means for the State, who had more resources available, to provide assistance to schools, that had challenges local districts weren’t equipped to handle. Charter schools were intended to be just one tool in a box that the State had access to. Someone, though, took it upon themselves to turn the ASD into a de facto charter authorizer. Since it’s inception, when the ASD took over the three campuses of Frayser, every takeover has been a charter conversion.

An interesting fact about the Frayser schools – they’re losing their leader Ash Solar. Barbic’s comments on his leaving are “I think it’s one thing to come and do the one- to two-year sprint as fast as you can,” he said. “But if we’re going to sustain this work, we’ve got to make sure we are finding people that can sustain an effort over time.” Guess Solar is not cut out for this work either. Even though he was a member of the Broad Residency Class of 2009-2011. You start to wonder who Chris thinks is qualified to do this work. If you looked at test scores you might even begin to question if the ASD is qualified to do this work.

From the beginning the ASD proposed to grow the bottom 5% to the top 25%. After three years, they’ve fallen considerably short of that goal and to reach it, would have to produce double digit gains each of the remaining years. Interesting enough, the I-Zone schools, which have been referred to as the local district’s achievement district, have proven more successful in producing gains with a whole lot less disruption to the community. Change is hard and rarely comfortable, but discomfort just for discomfort sake is not reform. Results have to be evident and to this point, the ASD has just not shown results that warrant the disruption they’ve caused.

I don’t know how many more signs are needed to show that this Achievement School District thing in Tennessee is fraying at the edges. Individually, any one of the series of failures that have beset the ASD this year would be cause for pause, but when taken together, it’s a damning indictment. To be honest, it seems to me that the ASD and it’s cohorts show more in common with war profiteers than educators.

At the very least the state of Tennessee Legislators need to put the brakes on any expansion of the Achievement School District. Let Mr. Barbic prove that he can still recruit quality charter operators. Because right now the quality ones are either leaving or scaling back their plans. We need to demand that Mr. Barbic prove that he can make academic gains with the students he’s charged with before granting him access to others. The ASD needs to prove that they are good stewards of tax payer money.

The Achievement School District may be prove to be a useful tool in the future, but with it’s current leadership, and mission statement, that is highly questionable. If it continues to be plagued with defections, scale backs, lack luster growth, community anger, and financial mismanagement, other solutions will need to be considered. There can be no success without stakeholder buy-in and right now, it is unclear who, if anybody, likes the ASD. Legislators owe it to Tennessee tax payers to hold the ASD to the same level of accountability required of students, teachers, administrators and schools. Anything less is just not acceptable.







Are Achievement Districts and Charters really the answer?


thAnybody who knows me knows that I’ll pretty much talk to anybody, anytime, about anything. It doesn’t matter if you agree with me or not; I just like dialog and am fascinated at how people arrive at their positions. Therefore, when Superintendent Chris Barbic invited me to tour one of the charter schools that is part of the Achievement District, I said sure. I also asked Rep. Gloria Johnson and MNPS PAC chair Chelle Baldwin to join me. 

The Achievement District, if you’re not familiar, is the brainchild of the state of Tennessee where the state will take over the bottom 5% of schools in TN and over 5 years move them into the top 25%. It’s a very noble endeavor, and of course involves all kinds of bold, new ideas with engaged classroom rockstars guiding the children. The state can’t do this alone so some of the schools get turned over to charter schools. Which means more bold ideas and more superstars of the classroom.

As a disclaimer, I’m sure you’ve picked up on it by now, I’m not a fan of charters or the particular idea of an achievement district. Tennessee’s ASD is modeled after Louisiana’s Recovery School District. Someday, if you have a couple of weeks, we’ll discuss the failings of the RSD. Though I must admit that it has been very successful in generating lawsuits. One other thing I should point out is that achievement districts are now popping up all over the country, Kansas and Michigan being the latest. Chief benefit seems to be the ability to by pass locally elected school boards.

All that said, I was very interested in seeing this experiment with my own eyes. I prepared myself to be wowed. After all I’ve read the testimonials and watched the uplifting Hollywood movies about the transformational power of Charter schools. My biggest argument has always been they may be good for some children but were they good for all children? What about the populations they traditionally underserved? I’ve never argued against their quality. So I was sure that I would witness some transformative classroom

Upon entering the building I was immediately impressed with the curtesy and friendliness I was greeted with. I’ve heard political opponents mumble Chris’s name under their breath but I found him to be very open and engaging. Truth is, I like most of the people that I’ve met on the reform side. If we were just going to a BBQ I’d be quite happy to spend an afternoon with them. It’s only when they start talking diversity, best practices, failure of the public school system, teachers,… that I have to start taking exception.

To get a better understanding of the underlining principles and practices of the ASD and LEAD schools we sat down with Chris and LEAD CEO Chris Reynolds. They were very informative and, for the most part, quite transparent. Things got a little murky around test results and answering to locally elected officials, but, in their defense, talk to any schools administrator about test results and things get a little murky. I appreciated their candor and taking the time to help us understand better. To be honest though, some of their defenses and counter arguments sounded familiarly like my wife’s experiences in a traditional school.

Yes, children from a lower economic class move around more often. They do tend to start from a lower  baseline. There is no magic bullet. Getting them up to grade level in a reasonable time is extremely difficult. None of this should deter these folks though. They were…CHARTER SCHOOL operators. I’ve seen “Waiting for Superman.” All this was just filler until we saw the jaw dropping results, right? Maybe this wasn’t Hollywood. 

After about 40 minutes of talking, we decided to go see the rhetoric in action. We were allowed to observe actual classrooms. This is were I was hoping to see Michelle Pfeiffer. Alas, it was not to be. To be honest, what I observed was not at all what I expected.  What I saw was a typical middle school in action, not that different from any other middle school I’ve been in.

I watched teachers conduct classes in rooms filled with students of varying degrees of engagement. There were some good lessons but I didn’t hear anything transformational. Truthfully some of it was fairly pedestrian. It was obvious that all the adults in the school cared deeply for the children, but then again every school I’ve ever been in has been populated by adults who cared deeply about kids. Kind of goes with the territory. You don’t go into the restaurant business if you dont like food.

I did get a pleasant reminder about the nature of children. The practice of “eye tracking” is something I’ve always found particularly abhorrent. Of course like many I was underestimating children and pictured it consisting of a classroom of children’s eyes locked on the instructor in zombie like fashion. I should have known better. Middle school children by nature never buy into anything that fully.

The reality is, the teacher calls for eye tracking and a few students instantly comply, a few sort of comply and some ignore. The teacher repeats her request and a few more comply. Those who initially ignored, bring about their eyes partially. The teacher once again repeats the request, and then moves on. Accepting the response she gets. Nothing Orwellian about it, but some good old fashion teenage rebellion and a lesson on remembering that children are more then just caricatures and sometimes subvert the best laid plans of

After observing the class rooms, I asked point blank, “Whats the difference?” I received a response involving greater intensity, better parent buy in, extra hours, increased teacher accessibility, but all that is rhetoric for the most part. Teacher’s in traditional schools are just as accessible. Lesson plans can be just as intense. Depending on the school and parents capabilities, you can find parents just as engaged.  Look at the incredible Dad’s group at Dan Mills.

It was also pointed out that school leadership was especially strong. Well, nobody has ever argued that strong leadership is not essential. Traditional schools with strong leadership do better then those with out. It’s interesting that so much focus has been placed on the effect of a quality teacher, while a disproportionate amount is focused on the leadership. Leadership is probably the single most important ingredient in creating the culture of a school.

My biggest take away from the whole experience was, why all the energy focused on a model that is already in existence? Instead of attempting to break down public education, why are charter school advocates not putting that energy, focus and experience into strengthening our traditional schools? Am I supposed to believe that no one would hire Chris Barbic, Chris Reynolds, Ravi Grupa or Todd Dickson as superintendents? I find that hard to believe.

Now they may have to spend some additional time climbing the ladder so to speak. They may have to put some extra time into “hands on in the school hallways” work before being elevated to these positions, but would that be a bad thing? These are extremely bright dedicated young men. When I think of the impact they could have if they were to use those gifts to strengthen our public institutions, it makes me sad to realize that they choose to work in systems that limit their scope.

Maybe I’m supposed to believe that traditional schools wouldn’t give them the avenues to practice their particular skill set. I don’t buy it. I can think of very few educators that wouldn’t relish the opportunity to apply their abilities to our most difficult schools. Again, if they went that route, they might not be courted by the mayors office or have their picture in the paper. They might not have the autonomy they now are afforded. However, they would be working to preserve a greater good.

When I think of the amount of resources and energy focused on creating a similar system outside an existing system, it infuriates me. Look at the state Race to the Top scope of work and see how much money KIPP has raised and received through state grants and you’ll be shocked. They are expected to raise 1 million dollars by June 1. Name me one other school in MNPS that would have that capability and then receive 600k from the state. There is even a plan currently being pitched in Nashville to give charter operators start up money if they go into South Nashville. Maybe our kids wouldn’t have been cold during the last cold snap if our local schools had that kind of resources. 

This is where I start to think about motivations and question why the need for charter schools? What is the real reason supporters are pushing so hard to create even more charter schools? What is the end game? If we keep adding charters and closing traditional schools, what our educational system of the future look like? We only have to look at New Orleans to get a glimpse of a system were the vast majority attend a charter school. A system where a parents has to go to the state level to get any redress because they have no locally elected official.

Perhaps we need to step back and evaluate the whole system, instead of focusing just on select schools. Perhaps we need to more closely examine why we educate our children? Is it for democratic or capitalistic purposes? Is there not room under the current system to foster more of the innovation that transpires daily? Instead of getting Race to the Top dollars to refurnish old Malls, why couldn’t we be useing that money to repair damage in our existing schools? Instead of picking sides and calling each other “Charter Zealots” and “Defenders of the Status Quo” couldn’t that energy be better focused on strengthening our public school system?

IMG_2100Let’s never underestimate the importance of that system. Advocates for education reform often like to say that it is all public education and that it should not matter what form a school takes, just that its a good school. That’s not necessarily true. While it’s may be true that individual schools can have a different look, what the system itself looks like is critical.

Our education system is a pillar of our democratic society. It is overseen by locally elected officials who are charged with ensuring that it produces graduates who are not just employable, but capable stewards of the world we’ve created. A separate system that answers to board members or state officials while by-passing locally elected officials does not uphold that pillar.