January 18, 2022

Gary Rubinstein: Down Goes Frayser!

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Gary Rubinstein has long followed Tennessee’s Achievement School District, a state turnaround program that promised to use the best reform tricks to turn around the state’s worst districts. It has failed, repeatedly and expensively. In this post, he marks the latest ASD “milest0ne.” Reposted with permission.

In 2011, spurred by Race To The Top money, former Tennessee Education Commissioner, Kevin Huffman, created one of the nation’s first ‘turnaround districts’ called The Achievement School District (ASD). He hired fellow TFA alum Chris Barbic to be the first superintendent.

The mission of the ASD was to take schools in the bottom 5% and within 5 years ‘catapult’ them into the top 25%. They started with six schools and over a period of about five years expanded into around 30 schools. The plan was to turn the schools over to charter operators and then after the schools had been successfully catapulted, they would return to the original school district.

After five years, it was clear that at least five of the original six school were still in the bottom 5%. The other one had maybe risen into the bottom 10%. Barbic resigned, Huffman resigned, the ASD changed their mission to something a lot more vague.

Now, ten years after the takeover of the original 6 schools, we learn from Chalkbeat, TN that some of those original 6 schools are returning to their district. I’ve been tracking those six schools for the past 10 years: Brick Church College Prep, Cornerstone Prep — Lester Campus, Corning Achievement Elementary School, Frayser Achievement Elementary School, Humes Preparatory Academy — Upper School, and Westside Achievement Middle School. Year after year, despite having been turned into charter schools, these schools barely budged in the rankings. One of the six, Humes, was already closed down and now, as reported by Chalkbeat, TN, two of them, Frayser and Corning are being returned to their districts even though they did not improve. Ironically, eight years ago Frayser was hailed as a miracle success story proving the effectiveness of the ASD.

Even though I predicted this ten years ago, it is still amazing to me how this is reported and how the people now in charge in Tennessee react to it publicly. Looking back at the 10 year history, it seems impossible. With a $100 million price tag, they came in and took over schools talking a big game. They did the entire ‘reform’ playbook. Even Michelle Rhee had a supporting role since the Education Commissioner, Kevin Huffman, was her ex-husband. The ASD was heralded as the next big thing and there were panel discussions at the TFA alumni summit and other events with the Fordham Institute where Chris Barbic was celebrated. Even as recently as a year ago, there was a remote event about lessons learned from the ASD where they tried to put a positive spin on their failure.

But here we are ten years later and they weren’t able to improve just six schools. And this program is still going on, they are still getting tax payer money, and around the country places are still trying to replicate it.

And there’s a media outlet, Chalkbeat, Tennessee that doesn’t realize that as far as Tennessee education reporting goes, this is equivalent to Watergate. Yet they understate things in this article with things like “The announcement marks a seminal moment for the Achievement School District, which did not deliver on early promises to transform schools that the state took over in Memphis and Nashville beginning in 2012.”

Tennessee had not learned it’s lesson and it replaced Huffman with another TFA alum, Penny Schwinn. In the Chalkbeat article Schwinn at least admits the failure of the ASD, but I still think that it doesn’t have the appropriate amount of outrage:

Schwinn acknowledged the state has fallen short of its school turnaround goals with the ASD, which mostly assigned schools to charter operators to do the work.

“Growth and achievement and progress is not anywhere close to what would be acceptable to a family,” she told reporters during a morning conference call. “It is not acceptable to me as a parent. And we have to be honest about that.”

I’ve been following the ASD for 10 years. I’ve written at least 23 blog posts about this sad district. If you want to get really depressed, you can see the links to them here.

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