An Achievement School District Primer

Written by: Mitchell Robinson

Primary Source : Keep Talking, July 17, 2015

“Achievement School Districts” are a recent phenomenon in the corporate education reform movement. These “school districts” are designed to guarantee “rapid improvement in the state’s low performing schools”, although specific methods, techniques and strategies to accomplish this goal are rarely mentioned. ASDs have sprung up all across the nation, under various names and guises, from the “Education Achievement Authority” in Detroit, to the “Recovery School District” in New Orleans, to “Achievement School Districts” in Tennessee and Nevada–and Georgia and North Carolina have recently announced plans to form their own ASDs. These experimental school systems usually target the “bottom 5%” of low-performing schools in a state or region for governmental takeover, with the promise of quickly improving student learning.

The one thing all of these experiments have in common is that they’ve been crashing failures. In spite of incredible amounts of publicity, spin and hoopla, not one of these educational petri dishes has resulted in any appreciable improvement in student learning, accountability, or curricular reform.

An Achievement School District Primer

How do you know if your state is considering creating an Achievement School District? Well, Achievement School Districts are characterized by several traits, none of which makes even the tiniest amount of sense in terms of helping to improve student learning or teaching quality:

School Funding

In other words, in spite of the probability that an ASD school has been chronically underfunded for years, perhaps decades, the state will now take its own cut from whatever local, state and federal funding the school may be receiving for administrative overhead, further decreasing the actual number of dollars that are going to classrooms, teachers and children.

Local Control

Transparency

  • Even though it is often trumpeted as an integral aspect of effective school governance, very few ASDs follow their own propaganda when it comes to transparency in reporting. Detroit’s EAA is an especially notorious offender in this respect, making claims that do not stand even the faintest amounts of scrutiny. According to Wayne State professor of education Thomas Pedroni, the EAA’s “internal data directly contradicts their MEAP data. Even Scantron, the maker of the internal assessment, would not stand behind the EAA’s growth claims. And Veronica Conforme, the current EAA Chancellor, removed all the dishonest growth claims from their advertising and their website, and told me personally she doesn’t give them credence for the purpose the EAA used them for.” For more from Dr. Pedroni on the EAA’s specious relationship with transparency, see this, and this.

Punitive vs. Educative Methods

This approach follows guidelines first established in the No Child Left Behind legislation, which stipulate draconian changes for any school that fails to meet yearly progress within five years:

These school districts must implement plans to restructure the school. Options for restructuring include:

This thinking represents a sea change in terms of strategy with respect to schooling and education policy. Never in our nation’s history have we taken a punitive approach rather than an educative approach when schools or children have struggled with demonstrating expected levels of progress.

When students experience difficulties in learning we respond by providing remediation, extra tutoring, or alternative teaching strategies–we don’t kick them out of school. By the same token, when under-funded and under-resourced public schools do not show “adequate yearly progress,” our response should be to find out why these schools are struggling, and provide them with the materials and support they need to improve–not for the charter management companies that run these schools to walk away before the end of the school year, forcing families to scramble to get their kids placed into public schools with little notice and no assistance.

Public education is far too important to treat it like a science experiment, with fuzzy methodology and uncertain results. Our children deserve schools that are adequately funded, controlled by locally elected school boards made up of persons with ties to the community and a vested interest in the success of their schools, transparency in reporting of school finances and learning outcomes, and that are founded and administrated with educative goals in mind, not punitive ones.

It’s time to demand the return of our schools and our children from Achievement School Districts and the forces of school privatization. Education is not a business, and our children aren’t widgets.

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Mitchell Robinson
Mitchell Robinson is associate professor and chair of music education, and coordinator of the music student teaching program at Michigan State University. Robinson has held previous appointments as assistant professor and coordinator of the music education area at the University of Connecticut; assistant professor of school and community music education at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y.; and director of wind activities and wind ensemble conductor at the University of Rochester. Robinson’s public school teaching experience includes 10 years as an instrumental music teacher, music department facilitator and high school assistant principal in Fulton, N.Y.