If you’re a student, a parent, a teacher, or otherwise interested in education policy, you will soon likely hear about the latest fad in education reform ― ASDs. An ASD, short for ‘Achievement School District,’ is something modeled after ‘The’ ASD in Tennessee. Tennessee’s ASD was an education experiment started in 2011 where the state either took over, or turned over to charter networks, schools with test scores in the bottom 5% of the state. These takeovers are the school district equivalent of martial law. Most, if not all, of the teachers and administrators are fired.
In return for this ultimate flexibility, the Tennessee ASD promised, according to its website, to ‘catapult’ these schools into the top 25% within 5 years. Two years after the creation of the Tennessee ASD an optimistic superintendent, Chris Barbic, claimed that three of the six original ASD schools were on track to achieve that ambitious goal, one of them having made so much progress it could break the barrier after just four years. But this turned out to be a very rosy view. Now five years have passed and the number of schools that achieved this goal is exactly zero. Of the six original ASD schools, actually, five out of six remain in the bottom 5% while the other one has only catapulted into the bottom 7%. An independent report from Vanderbilt’s Peabody College from December 2015 concluded after crunching the numbers that “the performance of ASD schools has been inconsistent across school years, in most cases showing no difference from the comparison schools.” Another report recently released by George Washington University came to the same conclusion and tried to identify what the causes of their failure were. It might be time to rename it the Underachievement School District. It is no wonder that many members of communities that the ASD has invaded are angry. The other established ASD, Detroit’s Education Achievement Authority (EAA), has been such a failure that it is getting phased out.
But publicly available facts like this have played little role in the proliferation of such districts. This approach to school reform has been popping up in state after state. ASDs currently exist in Tennessee, Detroit, Nevada, Milwaukee, and North Carolina while legislation has been proposed to create them in Georgia, Texas, Pennsylvania, and Rochester. This approach has been endorsed, even encouraged, by the US department of Education, as targeting the ‘bottom 5%’ of schools in each district has been written into the latest education law the Every Child Succeeds Act, which replaced the much maligned No Child Left Behind and Race To The Top initiative.
Each time the idea of creating an ASD is introduced by a state legislator, testimony from people whose own professional futures depend on the perception of success in the Tennessee ASD are used to get the required votes. Various education reform lobbyist groups produce reports and blogs about how successful these ASDs have been.
I think that education is a true science and one that deserves to evolve according to the scientific method. In the case of these ASDs, the initial conjecture would be that tenured teachers cause low test scores. The experiment to verify this conjecture is to create an ASD somewhere like Tennessee, fire the tenured teachers, and let the charter schools take over and teach the students. Education reformers seem to have no problem with these first steps. But the power of the scientific method is completely nullified when the results of the experiment are ignored when they contradict the working conjecture. That is what has happened in this case and why ASDs are gaining momentum around the country.
Any state considering making an ASD would be wise to listen to the words of the pioneer of the Tennessee ASD, former superintendent, Chris Barbic. A few months ago on a panel discussion Barbic was asked if he thought it was good that various states were considering replicating his program. Even he had his doubts. He said that there is a very limited supply of charters capable of executing these difficult turnaround efforts. If twelve states, he said, are all trying to get the same four or five charter operators, “it’s gonna create an issue.” Considering his dream team of charter operators could not move the original ASD schools out of the bottom 5%, this is a sobering assessment of the viability of creating franchises of these turnaround districts around the country.
Education reform is full of false promises and magic beans. Whether it is charter schools, test-based teacher evaluations, school closures, merit pay, making a more difficult curriculum, common core standardized tests, computerized learning, these strategies should not proliferate based on skewed PR, but on actual merit. How can we expect kids to become critical thinkers when decisions about their future are made by people who refuse to be critical thinkers themselves?