If you’re a parent, a student, or a teacher, the last thing you want to hear is that the state you live in has been commended by Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, as a ‘reform’ leader. This has been occurring recently in the state of Tennessee.
The state education commissioner of Tennessee is former TFA VP of public affairs, and long time casual acquaintance of mine from the time were were in TFA together in Houston in the early 1990s, Kevin Huffman. Huffman is also a member of the ‘Chiefs For Change,’ a group of education ‘leaders’ who blindly support the corporate reform agenda.
One experiment going in in Tennessee is the creation of The Achievement School District (ASD) which has on its website the slogan “We are the ASD: Proving the Possible by moving the bottom 5% of schools in Tennessee to the top 25% within five years.” Notice that the way this is phrased, it implies that they are having success. They are not “trying to prove” but actually “proving” that they have the secret to doing what nobody has ever done, or even come close to doing.
The superintendent of The Achievement District is someone who is more than a long time casual acquaintance from my Houston days, but a bona fide friend from those days. We share an unusual bond as in his first year he taught the sixth graders who had been left back that I had taught the previous year, my first year. Though he wasn’t one of my best friends, I did hang out with him a good amount, from what I remember. I like Chris, and he actually still answers my tweets on twitter, which is more than I can say for some other ‘reformers.’ When I saw he was chosen for this job, it gave me some hope since I have known him for over twenty years and believe him to be a ‘stand up’ guy. Still, I can’t help thinking that in order to be among the group he is associated with, he must have changed a lot in the past twenty years, I don’t know.
So the ASD had a very ambitious goal, though vaguely stated. I think they are implying that the ASD schools will, four years from now, have proficiency levels in the top 25% of the state. Their strategies, though, are not very encouraging to me. Shutting down public schools and turning them over to charter chains and staffing these schools with new TFAers, I don’t really see how that has any chance of working unless they redefine what ‘success’ is in this context.
In November they did some kind of pre-test, which were not showing encouraging results. Of course this was just a few months after the experiment began so this is not surprising. Then, at the end of the school year the students took the state tests and the results came back at the beginning of August. On the ASD’s website, they have a press release titled ‘ASD Schools Make Progress In Y1’. In this we learn that, amazingly, the district earned a score of 5 out of 5 on the states ‘growth rating.’ Holy moly guacamole. That’s good. At least I think it’s good. Definitely sounds good to have the maximum amount of growth, right?
But I’ve seen other districts, most notably the New Orleans ‘Recovery School District’ (RSD) the model on which the ASD is based, invent statistics that make them look like they are making progress when they actually are not. In the ASD press release, there are more details, including this graph comparing last years results to this years.
So they went up by 7.7% in science from 16.5% to 24.2%, up by 3.3% in math from 16.3% to 19.6%, and — wait, this can’t be right, can it? — DOWN by 4.5% in reading from 18.1% to 13.6%. So when we look at the average proficiency in Math and Reading (what reformer really cares about science unless it can be used to make it look like what they’re doing is working) has gotten lower. (‘Dipped’ is the word they used in the press release to describe what happened in reading. Surely they had to get the thesaurus going to get that carefully selected word.)
So here’s the big question: In what world can a school that had their reading proficiency drop by 4.5% and math increase by 3.3% can a school district get the highest possible ‘growth score,’ a five out of a possible five? I’m sorry, Chris, if you are reading this — and don’t take this personally, it’s just like us arguing about why your Atlanta Braves aren’t as good as my New York Yankees –, if the only thing that you can celebrate about your first year’s progress is that you did well on a ‘growth metric’ that is so obviously flawed, it is in need of some serious independent investigation, then you have nothing to celebrate.
What you should have said, and I’m not saying that you want my advice, is that these scores are very disappointing, but you never expected the scores to go up after just one year. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and the turnaround of the schools in Memphis wasn’t built in a year. In fact, you could have said, you would expect the scores to go down at first, just like you might expect your golf score to get worse after your learn a better swing in golf lessons, but before the change gets a chance to sink in and become natural. That’s what you should have said, and that would have bought you, at least, another year. But to pretend that you are happy about your level 5 ‘growth score’ is disingenuous.
As I said in my open letter to Chris a few months ago, which he still hasn’t answered — yes I know my letter was great and it would take a lot of work to write an equally eloquent response, but can’t you get someone on your staff to do it? — the only way that you are going to get the bottom 5% of schools up to the top 25% of schools with a completely in-school strategy (nothing about massive investment in wrap-around services for those pesky out-of-school factors) is if you bend the rules or find a way to bend the truth when reporting the results.
If I seem like I’m being hard on my old friend, it is just that I am hopeful that he is an honest enough guy to be the first Broad trained major ‘reformer’ to ‘break rank’ in true Ravitch style. Me and the others who think that corporate reform is making schools worse and hurting kids could really use a guy like Chris on our side.