Is the Tennessee School Takeover Machine Running Out of Gas?

Writer Andy Spears says that continued fallout from the Achievement School District’s takeover of a Nashville middle school could prompt legislators to put the brakes on the ASD.

By Andy Spears
Last year, I reported on the latest education reform gameThunderdomebeing played in Nashville. In this version of school disruptionorganized by the state’s Achievement School District (ASD)two schools compete for the privilege of being taken over by a charter operator. Yes, that’s right, two schools enter and everyone loses. Everyone, that is, except the charter operators.

thunderdome 2As reported, Neely’s Bend Middle School (grades 5-8) was the *winner* of last year’s Thunderdome fight for survival and is now in the process of being converted to a LEAD Public Schools charter grade-by-grade.

I bet you’re wondering what fun is in store now that Neely’s Bend has been declared the winner and is in the process of claiming its prize.

Well, for starters, last year’s principal, who many parents and teachers credit for creating a new attitude at the school, was reassigned. Additionally, only six of last year’s teachers are back for this year. That’s because as the process proceeds, teachers are *invited* to reapply for their jobs. In most conversions administered by the ASD, fewer than one in five teachers return to their school.

Of course, all of this disruption must be necessary, right? After all, Neely’s Bend was performing poorly and there was no hope of turning it around until a charter hero took it over and set it on the right path.

Turns out advocates for Neely’s Bend who claimed that the school was making impressive gains were right.

In fact, one of the reasons parents and teachers gave for wanting to keep their community school last year was that they believed Neely’s Bend was turning a corner on its own. The story they told was that the school, under new leadership and with a new attitude, was making impressive gains.

ASDTurns out, those advocates for Neely’s Bend were right. An analysis of recent test score data shows: *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, with some pretty solid numbers in Science over the past two years.*

This data confirms what parents and teachers were saying back in December of 2014. So, this means the ASD will now put a stop to the conversion process and let the school proceed on its path of progress, right?

Nope. The Achievement School District is convinced that the charter conversion model will be the best hope for a vastly improved Neely’s Bend.

How could we test that theory? Well, looking at schools under the jurisdiction of the ASD (and run by charters) over the last three years should yield some useful information.

Based on the rhetoric of the reformers, we’d expect to find that those schools managed by the ASD are making startling progressenough to assure the Neely’s Bend community that their school is now in good hands.

Except, that’s not what the data show. Instead, of the schools operated by the ASD the longest, all but two remain in the bottom five percent of all schools in Tennessee. The two *success stories?* They made it all the way to the bottom six percent.

Except, that’s not what the data show. Instead, of the schools operated by the ASD the longest, all but two remain in the bottom five percent of all schools in Tennessee. The two *success stories?* They made it all the way to the bottom six percent.

But, that’s better than Neely’s Bend, right?


Neely’s Bend Middle scores nearly six points higher on a combined metric than any of the schools under ASD management the longest. Incidentally, that would mean that Neely’s Bend no longer qualifies for the state’s *priority list* the group of schools eligible to be taken over by the ASD. But because the Thunderdome contest ended in December, the Neely’s Bend takeover will proceed as planned.

The improvements at Neely’s Bend and the disappointing performance of current ASD schools is not stopping the ASD from announcing a further expansion of its Nashville franchise, however. Possibly by way of more Thunderdome competitions between schools.

Chris Barbic recently stepped down as the chief of the Achievement School District.

Chris Barbic recently announced that he’s stepping down as the chief of the TN Achievement School District.

Unfortunately, education reform’s favorite Thunderdome ringmaster, Chris Barbic, is leaving the stage. After noting that it is difficult to get great results for poor kids in neighborhood schools, Barbic announced his departure by the end of this year.

Two other key ASD staffers have already moved on.

Now, all that’s left is a Nashville community that lost its middle school to an unproven experiment. Oh, and the specter of more Thunderdome competition in Tennessee schools.

Some in the Tennessee General Assembly have taken notice. More than twenty bills dealing with the ASD’s practices were filed in the 2015 legislative session. One of them passed. Ironically, that legislation would have prevented the ASD from taking over any school on the priority list that had scored a 4 or 5 on the state’s accountability indicator. Neely’s Bend’s 2015 score was a 5.

Unlike other school districts, the ASD is not accountable to an elected School Board. The Superintendent reports directly to the Commissioner of Education. This lack of accountability is likely what prompted soon-to-be former ASD Superintendent Barbic to say, *I think it’s important to remind everyone that a lot of things we are doing are by choice. If we wanted to, we could take over all 85 schools (on the priority list) next year.*

I think it’s safe to say that this communication strategy combined with the results at Neely’s Bend will cause the legislature to take another look at the runaway expansion of the ASD. It’s certainly not too late to both return Neely’s Bend to the community that loves it AND delay further expansion without new accountability provisions.

Andy Spears is a policy consultant in Nashville and blogs regularly at Tennessee Education Report

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