June 18, 2021

Gary Rubinstein: ASD Update

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Gary Rubinstein decided to check out a panel about turnaround schools in Tennessee, featuring some of the “stars” of the ill-fated Achievement School District. He brought some receipts. It did not go well. Reposted with permission.

I think the secret to happiness is to unfollow Twitter accounts that make you angry. About a year ago I realized this and I unfollowed most of the ‘reformers’ that I followed. This also meant that I would have less fodder to blog about and my blogging slowed down a lot because of it.

But I didn’t unfollow everyone that might say something that is going to set me off and one of the accounts I continued to follow was Chalkbeat Tennessee. I’ve been keeping track of the fall and fall of the train wreck known as the Tennessee Achievement School District (The ASD) for over ten years already and Chalkbeat Tennessee often writes about them so I haven’t been able to cut ties with that ongoing project, unfortunately.

As a refresher, the Tennessee ASD started with TFAer Kevin Huffman, funded by TFA lover Arne Duncan’s Race To The Top money hired TFAer Chris Barbic to create a ‘turnaround’ district in Memphis. The ASD took over existing schools that were in the bottom 5% and made them into charter schools with the ambitious goal of ‘catapulting’ (their word, not mine) the schools into the top 25% in five years. Well, over ten years have passed and exactly 0 of the schools they acquired made it even out of the bottom 10%. Study after study has concluded that the ASD had no positive impact. Sadly, the ASD continues to limp along and it serves as a model for other states to do a similar thing around the country.

Chris Barbic was an old friend of mine from my TFA Houston days. He was one year younger than me and his first year he taught the students that I had taught during my first year the year before so we had a lot in common and definitely bonded over that and beers back in the early 1990s. When Chris lost his mind and became an ed reform icon, I don’t know. But he did and I always hope that one day, like in The Deer Hunter, he will suddenly snap out of his trance and go back to being his old self. After it was clear that the ASD was a complete failure, about four years after its inception, Chris departed from there and worked for the John Arnold foundation and now with something called The City Fund, which promotes ‘school choice’ including the creation of districts based on the ASD.

In recent years, the ed reformers have lost their bluster. Where they used to be on TV all the time talking about charter schools and bashing the teacher’s unions, they have gone very quiet. Yes there are still some crazies on Twitter but most keep very quiet either because they have decided to tell fewer lies or because they just want to keep a low profile, and Chris Barbic was one of those who has been pretty quiet the last few years.

So when Chalkbeat TN tweeted an article announcing a two day conference. The headline of the article was ‘Memphis has school turnaround lessons for the nation, say organizers of virtual conference.’ I had a bad feeling about it, but I read the article anyway. It said that the conference was called ‘Tipping the Scales: What School Turnaround in Memphis Has Taught Us!’

I sometimes like what Chalkbeat has, but for whatever reason Chalkbeat, TN has the worst reporting I have seen in any of the Chalkbeat pages. They seem to have no idea over there that Tennessee was the victim of an ongoing grift and that they have all the data they need to report on it. Instead they describe this conference as having ‘an all-star lineup of educators, administrators, researchers, and philanthropic leaders.’

I certainly would not call anyone associated with The ASD an ‘all-star.’ In all my years of reporting on ed reform, The ASD has been so easy to tear down. They took over 30 schools, often ignoring pleas from the community not to, and turned around exactly zero of them. And the ASD shows how flawed the modern ed reform concept is since they got so much money and all the freedom that they wanted and yet they were still not able to show any results. If it wasn’t so sad for the community that had to endure this, it would be comical.

So, and I know this was a bad idea, I registered for the conference since it was virtual and it was free. And I went to the first panel discussion.

I had heard of two of the panelists, Chris Barbic and Dorsey Hopson. From what I remembered, Hopson was an opponent of the ASD when he was running Memphis schools. The other people I had never heard of, though I learned that Lisa Settle was the current superintendent of The ASD. I was really proud of myself that I didn’t already know that!

The panel started with a ‘researcher’ named Joshua Glazer from George Washington University who had studied data from the ASD and another program in Memphis called the iZone. He gave a bizarre fictional history of the evolution of the philosophy of these two programs. For the ASD he claims that they were struggling at the very beginning but they made changes, which he called ASD 2.0 where he claims they realized that the schools needed to teach the same curriculum. Of course this is nonsense because the schools were all operated by different charter schools and those schools, the theory used to be at least, got flexibility in exchange for accountability. Then with ASD 3.0 they learned even more and that’s where they are today. He makes no mention that every data analysis of the ASD shows they accomplished absolutely nothing in the over 10 years since they have been there.

This was not a good start. How can anyone learn from the turnaround efforts in Memphis if they are not honest about some basic facts? It’s like when there is a plane crash, scientists are supposed to examine the wreckage carefully to figure out what happened so that they can prevent something like that from happening again. With this rose colored glasses take on the evolution and success of the ASD, what was the chance of learning anything in this state of denial. This wasn’t ‘Tipping The Scales’ this was ‘Putting Your Thumb On The Scales.’

Then came the panel. This was a sad low-energy panel because they all just knew that they were trying to put a positive spin on a complete disaster. The first question was about what they learned and they all talked about how the initial plan was to give the schools autonomy, but when the schools did not improve they realized that the schools had not actually earned their autonomy yet so the state had to take more control. But this goes against the whole charter school philosophy that they need the autonomy and that will motivate them to do well since they know they will lose their charters if they fail to improve.

There was a chat going on among the 100 participants and I was staying quiet, I didn’t want to get kicked out for being a rabble rouser. But then I heard the current superintendent of the ASD, Lisa Settle, talk about her success as the founder and principal of one of the original ASD schools, Cornerstone Prep. Well, I have studied the original ASD schools so much I knew that none of them had improved. I did a quick search on Settle and found this on her linkedin page.

So she says that in three years the school got off the priority list and into the 27th percentile. This didn’t sound right to me. So I went to my own old blog posts where I researched this and found a document that proved that in 2017 Cornerstone Prep did get out of the bottom 5% but only to the bottom 8.2% So this seems like a bit of a scandal that Chalkbeat, TN could write about if they had any sense of how to identify and write about a scandal. The current ASD superintendent didn’t have the ability to turnaround even one school yet she is going to lead the turnaround of 30 schools including the one that she couldn’t help.

So maybe I should have just decided then to blog about it, but I couldn’t hold it in anymore so I started making comments in the chat. People would answer me and some of them were getting upset and one asked “Where in Tennessee do you live?” as if it matters that I don’t live there. The ‘researcher’ guy said I should not focus on the average but on the individual successes. Then the panelists, who I didn’t even realize were reading the chats, started arguing with me. So I put into the chat about Settle’s failure to turnaround Cornerstone prep and I posted a link to my document. Then my chat suddenly disappeared and I was censored. And the ‘researcher’ who was moderating sent me a private message that he did not find my comments useful.

Well, I’m not going to attend a conference where I’m being censored like that so I left and that was that. On the one hand I can see why a conference might not like someone asking these tough questions that challenge the panelists and also the theme of the conference. On the other hand, these education reform superstars should be able to easily handle any heckler if what I’m saying isn’t true. It’s like if at the U.S. Open some guy were in the stands screaming “Nadal, you stink” and then Nadal invites the heckler onto the tennis court and makes the guy play tennis against him. Nadal would destroy that guy to the point of humiliation. Yet if that guy suddenly starts beating Nadal, well maybe that guy knows more about tennis than Nadal then and maybe Nadal doesn’t belong on the court.

So that’s my story. It definitely reminded me of why I was smart to unfollow so many accounts that pull me in. I’m not sure if my antics made the panelists do any self-reflection, probably not.

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