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Gary Rubinstein has followed the evolution of the Tennessee Achievement School District closely since it was launched in 2011.
In this post, he warns reformers and others to beware of copying the concept. It failed. Do not replicate failure might be the message. Although states like North Carolina, Georgia, and Nevada seem determined to replicate the ASD, regardless of its failure.
The ASD, you may recall, pledged to take the bottom-scoring 5% of schools in the state and vault them to the top 25% in five years. It hasn’t happened. As Gary shows, achievement gains have been negligible at best.
Despite the failure of the ASD to meet its goals, the new Every Student Succeeds Act endorses the idea that the state should take over the bottom 5% of schools and fix them. ASD have proved that this is no simple matter.
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?