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More on Achievement School Districts

Chris Barbic, the founder of YES Prep and the superintendent of Tennessee’s Achievement School District, one of the models for Greg Abbott’s education plan, weighs in on what these things are and are not.

First, by law, the Tennessee ASD charters can’t pick and choose their students; the charters are not open-enrollment schools. When a charter joins the ASD, it replaces an existing low-performing neighborhood school – one ranked in the bottom 5 percent of schools in our state (Tennessee’s “Priority Schools”). Nothing about that school’s attendance zone changes – all zoned kids are guaranteed seats just as before, and the only kids who can transfer in to our schools are those zoned to other Priority Schools. Our ASD charters have special education populations that are larger than the local district averages – in some cases, more than one-quarter of the school’s population.

Second, it is important to put our first-year results – the entire ASD operation in Tennessee is only 2 ½ years old – in proper context. Prior to any ASD intervention, conditions in Priority Schools were dire – fewer than one in six students could read on grade level and the average ACT score was a 14. In our first year, we earned Level 5 growth as a district (the highest-possible growth rating in Tennessee) and our Memphis schools grew faster than the state average in math and science. Where our kids struggled in reading – many of them are years behind their peers – our school communities were fast learners, going into the summer with major adjustments and plans for improvement. We worked hard to create a new culture and conditions for success, earning high marks from teachers and parents.

This is what year one in a school turnaround effort is really about – changing the vision of what is possible and setting schools up for rapid growth in student achievement. It has taken many years for the Priority Schools to get where they are, and it will take more than one year to get them where they need to be.

Over the past two years, we have learned a great deal about what it takes to make an achievement school district work. A nimble and responsive governance structure is most important. In Tennessee, the ASD superintendent reports directly to the state’s commissioner of education. If an achievement school district is created to exist in a bureaucracy more cumbersome than the district and schools it is trying to fix, it will never work.

Next, it is critical that an achievement school district have charter-authorizing power. The ability to authorize charters leverages the great public charters already in Texas and provides them an opportunity to serve the highest-need kids.

And finally, an achievement school district will need adequate startup funding. We were fortunate to use federal “Race to the Top” dollars as startup capital. Texas will need to identify when, where and how this money will flow.

See here and here for the background. Barbic was responding to Lisa Falkenberg’s column from a couple of weeks ago. A few points:

– The issue of who the students are is very important. A big criticism of charter schools is that they get to cherry pick their students, which includes the ability to dump students they don’t want to deal with. If they have to take all comers and they can succeed, that’s a huge point in their favor.

– We should definitely be cautious about short term gains. As with sports teams hiring new coaches after bad seasons, there’s almost always an immediate boost in performance for a variety of reasons that have nothing to do with actual improvements in quality. I know we all want quick fixes, but until we get some long-term studies that show (for example) an increase in graduation rates and college completion, we can’t say if this model is any better or worse than what we already have.

– Note the bit about the need for adequate startup funding at the end there. Rick Perry thumbed his nose at Race To The Top funds; if Greg Abbott had any problems with that, he kept them to himself. Abbott has studiously avoided any mention of school finance throughout the Governor’s race, while he continues to defend the $5.4 billion cuts to the education budget in court. (Those budget cuts had a negative effect on charter schools, too, according to Chris Barbic.) I don’t know about you, but there’s nothing in Greg Abbott’s record or his current rhetoric that suggests to me that he’s interested in fighting for the resources that an Achievement School District would need. If I had to bet, I’d guess he’s hoping that could be a way to cut costs in the budget.

– But let’s say that Abbott would fight to ensure sufficient funding for Achievement School Districts, even to the point of going hat in hand to the dreaded federal government. If that is the case, then one has to wonder why he wouldn’t fight for adequate funding for the existing school districts. Why not fully fund them and see what they can do before you go reinventing the wheel? I know it’s crazy but hey, it just might work.

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