Gary Rubinstein's Blog

Underachievement School District Superintendent Resigns In Disgrace


One of the most high profile experiments in education is Tennessee’s Achievement School District (ASD).  As part of their Race To The Top funding, the former commissioner of education, TFAer Kevin Huffman, hired another TFAer Chris Barbic to make a plan for the lowest performing schools in the state.

Funded with millions of dollars, the ASD launched in 2011 with a very specific goal spelled out very clearly on their website (until about six months ago when they changed it)

Any school that was in the bottom 5% of schools based on test scores could be either taken over and run by the ASD or could be handed over to a charter organization with the plan to ‘catapult’ them into the top 25% within 5 years.  The ASD started with a cohort of six schools in 2011 and has about 30 schools today.

In 2014, three years into the experiment, Barbic claimed in an interview that of the first 6 schools, three were on track to meet that top 25% goal including one school that was on track to meet the goal one year ahead of schedule.  Around this time, Barbic was inducted into Jeb Bush’s ‘Chiefs For Change’ organization, a who’s who of ed reform, many of whom are now working as high paid consultants rather than as school or district leaders.

In 2015, four years into the experiment, things were not looking good for the ASD.  Of those original six schools, four of them continued to be in the bottom 5% while the other two had merely catapulted into the bottom 6%.  Barbic resigned at the end of 2015, about 8 months before we could learn if he was able to accomplish the goal of moving those schools from the bottom 5% to the top 25%.  Fortunately for Barbic, computerized testing glitches caused the Tennessee state tests in the spring of 2016 to be invalidated so we will never know if the ASD got any of those schools where they promised in the five year window.  Also fortunately for Barbic, he got a job for the billionaire John Arnold working on their education initiatives.

Barbic was succeeded by a member of his leadership team, Malika Anderson.  Some time during her term, the ASD changed their mission on their website.  No longer are they talking about catapulting the bottom 5% to the top 25% in 5 years.  Some time between March 2016 and April 2017, the website now states that their mission is ‘By 2025, we will close the opportunity gaps long persistent in Tennessee’s public education.’  So they want 8 more years and they learned not to make any specific promises, like how much they want to reduce those gaps even.

Anderson was the superintendent during the latest state tests in the spring of 2017.  Though the scores for elementary and middle schools have not yet been released, the high school scores were and they were so bad that even the normally forgiving Chalkbeat Tennessee wrote an article entitled Tennessee’s turnaround district scores worse in nearly all high school subjects.  In this article it was revealed that the students in the ASD high schools, despite having been in ASD schools for six years had 8 percent passing English and less than 1 percent passing math.

Chalkbeat Tennessee actually tried to make a lame excuse for this poor performance

Four of the ASD’s six Memphis high schools are turnaround schools: Fairley High, GRAD Academy, Hillcrest High and Martin Luther King Jr. College Preparatory. Two are alternative schools that aim to help off-track or disconnected students attain their diplomas. Comprising a third of the scores across the ASD’s high schools, those two alternative schools likely skew the district’s test results down.

This shows a complete lack of numeracy since even if those other two schools got 0% passing, that would mean that the other four schools would have at most 2% passing in order to have an average of 1% passing.  So, no, those two schools would not ‘likely skew the district’s test results down’ as they claim.

Anderson herself takes the opportunity to defy the ‘no excuses’ philosophy of ed reform by responding to the scores with “[Our] students have often spent most of their educational careers in underperforming elementary and middle schools and have very little time before they will have to transition to postsecondary life …,” even though those students spent much of their educational careers in ASD schools that she helped run.

With the elementary and middle school scores coming soon — and really the final nail in the coffin of the ASD as even with an extra year on that five year plan they likely did not move the bottom 5% of the schools even out of the bottom 5% — I was not surprised to learn four days ago that Malika Anderson (also a recent inductee into ‘Chiefs For Change’) has ‘decided’ to resign and become a consultant.  It turns out that Anderson was actually the final member who remained of the original team that started in 2010 with Barbic.  So not one person will be around to be held accountable for the failure of the ASD we have already seen in the high school and very likely to see when the other scores are soon released (which surely Anderson has already gotten an early preview of).

Chalkbeat Tennessee misses the opportunity to write about this as the scandal that it is.  In describing the failure of the ASD to improve the test scores of the schools it took over they wrote

While scores have been lackluster for most ASD schools (scores released last week for high schools were disappointing), even its critics acknowledge that the district has nudged Memphis school leaders out of complacency and created a sense of urgency to address longstanding deficiencies in neighborhood schools.

Words like ‘lackluster’ and ‘disappointing’ do not accurately convey what a disaster this overhyped experiment has resulted in.  And to give the ASD any credit for ‘nudging’ other school leaders into improving is somewhat deluded, I think.

Chalkbeat Tennessee had another chance to cover this story appropriately, though instead the same reporter did an exit interview with Anderson with the absurd title ‘Outgoing ASD chief reflects on Tennessee’s turnaround journey’ .  She clearly resigned before she got fired so ‘outgoing ASD chief’ is too gentle.  And ‘Tennessee’s turnaround journey’?  It wasn’t a ‘journey’ it was more of a ‘fiasco.’

In this interview, the reporter — I can’t believe that this is actually someone’s full time job to report about education in Tennessee and they can’t even identify a newsworthy story — avoids any tough questions about the test scores.  Anderson answers the last question about what she would tell her successor and she says

Also, to maintain exceptionally high expectations for what our kids can do. When we hit challenges, or don’t see the outside gains that we all want for our kids in a very short time, some people could start to lower expectations for what’s possible for our kids, that’s the wrong move. We have to keep expectations high and adjust our own perceptions and resources to help our kids, who we know get there.

This is ironic since she is supposedly resigning on her own will so if that’s true, she’s giving up on the kids.  And as far as keeping the expectations high, why is it that under her leadership the ASD changed their mission from the ambitious and clearly measurable goal of getting the bottom 5% to the top 25% in 5 years into the nebulous thing about closing the opportunity gaps by 2025, 14 years after the ASD started?

Incidentally, the ASD is being replicated around the country and even in the Every Child Succeeds Act there is a nod to it as states must come up with an intervention for their bottom 5% of schools.

The main thing for Anderson is that, like Barbic, she got her induction into Chiefs For Change which generally gains you a pretty good job as a consultant.  So nobody will be held accountable who was responsible for the ASD failure and the only people who get punished are the children and the parents who had to endure the instability that this program caused.