Follow The Yellow Brick Load

Tennessee’s Achievement School District (ASD) is the golden child of the reformers.  The mission of the ASD is to take schools in the bottom 5% of the state and, within five years, propel them into the top 25% in the state.  Like the Recovery School District (RSD) in Louisiana, the primary turnaround strategies used in the ASD is to convert the schools into charter schools.  Throughout the country it is being touted as a successful model to be replicated in numerous states including Nevada and Pennsylvania.

So far there have been two years of data and, by any objective standards, the experiment is floundering.  Of the six original ASD schools, two now have lower scores, two have about the same scores, and two have improved scores.  Of the two that have improved scores, one of them, Brick Church College Prep, is, supposedly, proving what’s possible and, according to ASD superintendent Chris Barbic, on track to get into the top 25% a year ahead of schedule — after just four years.

From that article:

The special statewide district is taking over the lowest-performing schools in the state with a goal of moving them into the top 25 percent in just five years. Now in year three, superintendent Chris Barbic says he’s encouraged.

“You know, when we first talked about this, this was a goal that folks thought was completely crazy. And I think we’re learning is that not only is it not crazy, but we’ve got three of our first six schools that are on track to do it.”

One of those three schools on the right trajectory is Brick Church Pike College Prep in Nashville, which is slowly being converted into a charter school run by LEAD Academy. Barbic says if Brick Church matches this year’s student growth in math and reading, it would leap into the top quartile a year early.

Reformers are very good at cherry picking to prove whatever point they are trying to make.  In this case, if Brick Church really has proved that it is possible to turnaround a school by turning it into a charter school then, well, all we have to do is replicate this success.  Just one isolated success justifies the entire existence of the ASD.

When I heard about the ASD plan, I was very skeptical and even wrote one of my ‘open letters’ to the ASD superintendent Chris Barbic, who I’ve known for over twenty years.  It’s not that I think that most schools can’t do a better job.  But I don’t believe that most schools will improve much by only replacing their staffs.  When I hear about a a school that increased its test scores by twenty percentage points in a two year period, my suspicion is that it wasn’t the teachers who were replaced, but the students.

The original idea of the ASD was supposed to be that the charter schools would take over district zoned schools so that there could be no accusations that the score improvements were due to having different students.  But of the six original schools, the only two that are supposedly improving both did what’s called ‘phase-ins’ where they, for example, take a 5-8 school and only take the new incoming fifth graders the first year and then add a new fifth grade each year until they have taken over the whole school.  Of course this makes it tough to compare the pre and post takeover scores since none of the students they take were ever actually in the old school.

So let’s look at the Brick Church scores.  Before the takeover 2011-2012 they had 17.7% proficient in math and 19.9% proficient in reading.  After the first year with their 5th grade class in 2012-2013 their numbers were 24.2% in math and 12.8% in reading.  Then in 2013-2014 with their sixth graders and their new class of fifth graders their scores rose to 41.2% for math and 37.2% for reading.  So if they continue to go up by 17% in math and 24% in reading for the next two years they will have met the goal of going from the bottom 5% to the top 25%.

Other charter schools haven’t had such success so I checked out the Tennessee education data.  It wasn’t easy to find, but eventually I came upon what I was looking for, something that would allow me to compare the test scores for incoming 5th graders to different schools to see if the new crop of Brick Church fifth graders are truly the ‘same kids’ as the ones that were at the persistently failing Brick Church Middle School.  Also, these plots allowed me to compare the ‘growth’ of the Brick Church students to see if their high test scores were because they had started with high test scores or if they ‘grew’ to those scores from low starting points.

Below are four revealing plots directly from the Tennessee website which certainly remove some of the mystique of the Brick Church miracle.

5th grade reading all

The above plot compares ‘entering achievement’ to ‘growth index’ for fifth graders at every school in Tennessee.  As can be seen, Brick Church fifth graders came in with about a 42 ‘entering achievement’ which is most certainly not in the bottom 5% and their ‘growth index’ is around a 0 which means that their high test scores were not a result of school induced ‘growth.’

5th grade math all

Similar graph for fifth grade math.  They had ‘entering achievement’ near the middle with near 0 ‘growth.’

Now here’s those same two plots with just the 13 ASD schools:

5th grade reading ASD

This is for fifth grade reading for the ASD schools.  Notice that Brick Church fifth graders had ‘entering achievement’ significantly higher than all the other ASD schools.  Also notice that the 0 growth index is much easier to see on this plot.5th grade math asd

And here we see that Brick Church also had significantly higher ‘entering achievement’ in math than the other ASD schools.  It is no wonder that they are the highest performing ASD school.

Besides a hard rectangular prism used to build houses, the word ‘Brick’ generally has negative connotations.  In basketball it’s when a ball bounces hard off the front rim.  A ‘brick’ of cocaine is something you never want to be found in your trunk when you’re pulled over for a traffic violation.  And as more and more accurate data about the kinds of lying that reformers do to keep their jobs get uncovered, surely they will start ‘pooping’ bricks.

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10 Responses to Follow The Yellow Brick Load

  1. John says:

    What time of year are the 5th grade tests? Do they reflect 5th grade learning, or are they “entering achievement”?

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  3. Excellent research. Do you have a theory about why the new population of students at this school changed so much? Does this school still draw its students from within designated geographic boundaries? Do you suppose the novelty of that phase-in model drew the interest of new families? The governor in GA is planning to try these shenanigans if it passes in the Fall, so I am trying to gain better understanding of the game.

    • sellario says:

      I believe the state changed the law where you didn’t have to be at a “failing” school (Priority which means the school has scores in the bottom 5%) to be able to transfer to an ASD school for which you are not zoned.

  4. Old Teacher says:

    Nevada is right their too, an old crony of the governors needs a six figure job. They do not understand that gutting a school of all stability and making it a charter school under an “Achievement District” is like taking a stick, calling it a magic wand, and expecting real magic….it just does not exist. It will destroy the teaching profession and eliminate the right of people to govern the affairs in their own community. I will paraphrase Peter Greene, They expect to find Centaur operated Unicorn farms on the banks of charter school magic.

  5. Meghank says:

    Three years into the job of moving schools from the bottom five percent to the top 25, Barbic is not sure it can be done. “We knew it was an ambitious goal. We did that on purpose,” he said, pointing to the urgency around the quality of public education in Memphis he says it has generated.

    Barbic is making no formal announcement until he sees final test scores later this summer from the six ASD schools open three years. He’ll compare them to schools that joined in the last two, hoping that lessons the ASD has learned are helping kids pick up the ball and make exponential gains.

    “We could say tomorrow we are changing the goal,” Barbic said. “The only blowback we would probably get is from you guys (media). “But there is nothing stopping us. I could wake up tomorrow and decide I want to do something different.”

    Shelby County Schools board members are angry at the implications, saying the ASD has been given free use of schools and drained tens of millions of dollars from the school district in exchange for the promise.

    “I thought it was unrealistic that they take the bottom five percent and take it to the top 25 percent,” said SCS board member Stephanie Love. “I know for a fact it takes at least two to three years to get the school culture under control. If you don’t have people in a school that know and understand the needs of the children in the community, the teachers are going to struggle.

    SCS board chairwoman Teresa Jones says SCS knew the top 25 percent would be difficult.

    “It’s tuff work,” she said in a text. “If it’s true, I won’t celebrate. I believe Chis Barbic is committed to providing the best educational opportunities for the kids, the same as SCS is. If it’s true, the kids lose; we all lose.”

    Board member Chris Caldwell says the discussion in Nashville should be about investing resources in public education around models that work the best.

    “At this point, that is the iZone (the SCS version of Achievement district schools). I don’t think the discussion should be how long and many schools they can take and all those details but a really frank discussion about how to best use the limited resources and putting them in models that best serve the children and drive student achievement,” he said.

    To be in the top 25 percent of proficiency standards in public schools in Tennessee, the ASD would have to make gains of more than 10 percent on test scores every year for five years. Last year, students in grades 3-8 made a 3.4 percent bump in reading and a 2.2 percent gain in math. In the Innovation Zone, the 13 iZone schools showed double-digit gains on average, including a 17.2 percent gain over the ASD in science.

    Barbic concedes the iZone has made faster gains, but says, this early in the game “they probably should be doing better,” citing challenges the ASD had as a startup. But he also says SCS had an advantage because it knew who its best teachers and principals were and could move them quickly to the iZone schools.

    In NBA terms, he said, the ASD was the “expansion team,” forced to build a brand-new organization, including inventing pipelines to provide strong teachers.

    When the state law that created the ASD was written in 2010, lawmakers didn’t stipulate what turning around schools should look like.

    “That was the first order of business when I arrived,” Barbic said. “‘What are we going to do here? What is our goal?’ I talked to a lot of people who said, ‘Let’s get the schools off the priority list’ (those schools in the bottom 5 percent). Everyone here is working too hard. That is not an ambitious enough goal.

    “We had to create a game worth playing, a game that was going to allow us to attract the people that could potentially win the game. … Now, the third part is you gotta win the game. We’re in the middle of playing the game. It’s an important game. Kids’ lives are at stake.”

    “Maybe it’s the top 25 percent in seven years or six years,” Barbic said, adding that organizations that get “pounded over the head” for taking risks learn to be so “risk adverse, you don’t do anything. I think what we have to be able to do is have the courage to say, ‘Look, we tried this. It didn’t work. Yes, we need to be held accountable for that, and if it turns out that we are off by a year or two, that’s OK as long as we are still making progress.”

  6. meghank says:

    Update – the reporter has changed the article. It now is much more flattering to the ASD than the article I quoted above.

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