What does the future hold for Nashville and the Achievement School District?

by Anne Marie Farmer, Nashville League of Women Voters

nashvilleIf you follow public education in Nashville, you’ve probably heard mention of the Achievement School District, or ASD.  But, many people are unsure what the ASD is and how it impacts Nashville. This article is a quick primer on the ASD, its performance, and its footprint in our town.

So what is the ASD? Simply put, the ASD began in 2012 as a school district without geographic boundary that was intended to be an intense intervention for a small number of persistently struggling schools. It receives more money per pupil than local school districts. When the ASD was originally proposed, the idea was that those schools would receive help in partnership with their local district and be returned to district management within 5 years. However, it has mostly pursued a strategy of turning schools over to charter operators, giving those charter operators 10 year contracts to run the schools. The stated goal of the ASD is to take schools that score in the bottom 5% of test scores across the state and improve them to reach the top 25% of test scores within five years. It is modeled after the Recovery School District in New Orleans. A school that meets certain criteria can be removed from a local school district and be made part of the ASD. The ASD has grown every year since its inception, taking over more and more public schools. This growth has prompted significant community pushback, particularly in Memphis, where most ASD schools are located. http://www.bluffcityed.com/2014/10/memphis-asd-revolt/

Has the ASD been effective at raising student achievement at its schools? The short answer is “no.” While some schools such as Nashville’s Brick Church College Prep (a school being shifted one grade a year from MNPS to the LEAD charter school network) seemed to show significant TCAP gains after one year of ASD intervention, the most recent TCAP results show double digit drops in student test scores for math and reading. Education blogger and statistician Gary Rubinstein took a look at how the ASD is fairing overall on its goal of moving schools to the top 25%. He found that four of the original six ASD schools still score in the bottom 5% in the state, while the other two have moved up to the bottom 6%. https://garyrubinstein.wordpress.com/2015/07/31/the-underachievement-school-district-2015-edition-part-i/

ASD superintendent Chris Barbic, who came to Tennessee after founding the YES Prep charter network, made a stir when he announced that he would resign as head of the ASD in December 2015, and gave a candid assessment of the challenges faced by schools who enroll every student in the zone. “As a charter school founder, I did my fair share of chest pounding over great results,” he wrote. “I’ve learned that getting these same results in a zoned neighborhood school environment is much harder.” Charter school skeptics have long argued that charter schools have an advantage when it comes to test scores because they enroll only those students whose parents are engaged enough to seek out a particular school and proactively enroll, while they also can release students for various reasons. The ASD intended to debunk that view and show that charter schools and reform principles could achieve the same test scores in schools that took all students in the neighborhood. ASD schools, in theory, are supposed to enroll every student in the attendance zone of the school being taken over. However, it hasn’t always worked out that way, with the Aspire charter organization turning away some students from Coleman Elementary after ASD takeover. http://www.bluffcityed.com/2014/10/can-neighborhood-schools-asd-coexist/ Also, the ASD has previously indicated that it plans to open charter schools in Nashville that do not take all students from an attendance zone, and are to be located near struggling schools and allowed to recruit students whose parents proactively enroll in the ASD school. http://nashvillecitypaper.com/content/city-news/state-authorization-charters-catches-school-board-guard Further, recent legislation allows an ASD school to recruit students from outside its attendance zone, which would change the student body. The ASD seems to be slowly moving away from its original stated plan to focus on turning around zoned neighborhood schools with no change in enrollment.

The ASD grabbed Nashville headlines last year when it announced that it would take over either Neely’s Bend Middle School or Madison Middle School – two schools not far from each other, in the Hunters Lane High School cluster. This announcement was met with protests by the school communities, and contentious public meetings with ASD officials.  http://www.tennessean.com/story/news/politics/2014/12/04/leave-schools-alone-madison-parents-demand/19931951/  When the ASD finally determined it would take over Neely’s Bend, parents and teachers argued that Neely’s Bend was already in the midst of significant improvements under a new principal, and that those improvements would show in the spring standardized assessments. They were correct. “Neely’s Bend is showing a growth rate well above the district average and has posted consecutive years of growth in both Math and Science.” Local education expert Andy Spears looked at the irony of Neely’s Bend being moved from district leadership into the struggling ASD despite these gains in a guest post on the Edushyster blog: http://edushyster.com/is-the-tennessee-school-takeover-machine-running-out-of-gas/. He also details how the ASD’s continual expansion despite low performance is causing legislators to take a look at restraining this three year old education experiment.  Notably, under legislation passed this year to exempt schools showing significant improvement from ASD takeover, Neely’s Bend would have been spared.

These are critical times for the ASD. It will be searching for a new leader after the departure of Chris Barbic. What changes will a new ASD superintendent make? Will he or she continue the path of expanding the ASD’s reach every year, or instead refocus on the original goal of intense intervention for a small number of schools? Will the ASD eventually achieve any significant improvements in student performance? How will the legislature approach the ASD this year? Stay tuned!

Posted in Achievement, Charter Schools, Public Education, Reform, Tennessee.

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