Tennessee’s Achievement School District, or ASD for short, is one of the most high profile education experiments in the country. In 2011, fueled by winning a Race To The Top grant, then education commissioner and former TFA vice president and former husband of Michelle Rhee, Kevin Huffman hired TFA alum and founder of Houston’s YES Prep charter schools Chris Barbic to be the ASD’s first superintendent.
Every three years Tennessee releases a ‘priority schools’ list. These are the schools whose test scores put them in the bottom 5% of the state. The way the ASD was set up, schools on the priority list can be taken over by the state and managed by the ASD or the ASD can authorize a charter school to take over one of those schools. According to their website, “The Achievement School District was created to catapult the bottom 5% of schools in Tennessee straight to the top 25% in the state.” Their time frame for accomplishing this was five years. They started with six schools in 2011 and they currently have about 30 schools in the ASD.
In April 2016, Chalkbeat Tennessee published an unofficial priority list, four years into the ASD experiment. Of the original six schools, Frayser (0.8%), Cornerstone (2.1%), Westside (2.2%), Corning (2.3%), Humes (2.5%), and Brick Church (6.6%), five were in the bottom 3% while one ‘catapulted’ to the bottom 7%. But they still had one more year to make a comeback. Unfortunately because of glitches in their state testing, the standardized tests for grades 3-8 in Tennessee were invalidated last year so we will never know if they would have accomplished their goal of getting these six schools into the top 25% in five years. It seemed like we would have to wait for that sixth year.
But there’s a new problem with that. The next priority list scheduled to come out in the summer of 2017 was supposed to be the one that finally proves or disproves if the ASD could keep their promise of getting schools from the bottom 5% to the top 25% in five (OK we’ll give them six) years. The problem is that the criteria for being on the priority list is going to change. When the schools were originally taken over by the ASD it was because they were on the priority list based on test scores alone. But according to Chalkbeat Tennessee, the 2017 priority list will be based not just on test scores but also on the nebulous ‘growth’ scores. (The state document outlining this can be found here around page 60.) So this means that the 2017 priority list will be based on different criteria than the priority list that landed these schools in the ASD in the first place. It also means that we might see headlines in a year that the ASD schools did catapult out of the priority school list, without much mention that the metric had changed. ASD schools exiting the priority list means that new schools enter the priority list opening up new opportunities for the ASD to take over schools. When the time comes, I’ll do my best to reconstruct what the priority list would have been under the old system to see if the ASD was a success or a failure.
By making such a grand proclamation of what they were going to accomplish, the ASD invited a lot of scrutiny. After a few years there was a Vanderbilt analysis that said that students in the ASD were not making very much progress. In November 2014, Green Dot abandoned their plans to take over a high school. This started a parade of high profile charter operators leaving or reducing their stake in the ASD. In March 2015 a bizarre thing happened. YES prep, the charter chain that Chris Barbic started, at the last minute abandoned their plans to open a school in the ASD. In October 2016 Gestalt Charter Schools announced that they will stop running their two schools which included Humes, one of the original six ASD schools. Their other school, Klondike Elementary School, will actually close next year because of this, the first ASD school to be shut down. And most recently, just a few weeks ago, the gold standard of charter schools, KIPP Charter Schools, announced that they will pull out of KIPP Memphis Collegiate Schools. Watching the ASD unravel does make me look quite prophetic when I predicted this in my open letter to Chris Barbic back in 2012.
One thing that was good about the ASD experiment was that these charter schools were taking over existing schools so that they would truly have the ‘same kids’ that they always claim to have when they compare themselves to the nearby ‘failing’ schools. In this way the ASD made it more difficult for these charter schools to do as many of the tricks they do elsewhere to choose the students who will raise their test scores. The fact that all these high profile charters are turning around and fleeing the ASD just shows what a fraud these charter chains are when they are stripped of the smoke and mirrors that they have used to build their influence and fame.
Reformers are all about increased autonomy in exchange for increased accountability. So how have the architects of the ASD been held accountable for their failure? Well Kevin Huffman resigned in November 2014 after 3 1/2 years as commissioner. Chris Barbic resigned in July 2015 after four years as superintendent of the ASD, a year before he could be judged on whether or not he met his five year goal. Barbic is now working for billionaire John Arnold’s Foundation to promote his education policies. I’m not exactly sure what Huffman is up to but I suspect he’s not having trouble making ends meet either.