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Texas Achievement School District

“Let’s just be real” about charter schools

Very interesting.

Chirs Barbic

“Let’s just be real,” Chris Barbic wrote last week when announcing his resignation as superintendent of Tennessee’s Achievement School District.

Then Barbic admitted what skeptics of charter schools have preached for years — “achieving results in neighborhood schools is harder than in a choice environment.”

Barbic, as founder of the highly acclaimed YES Prep charter school network in Houston, was used to starting schools from scratch, enrolling students whose parents chose to send them there instead of to their zoned school. Charter schools in Texas are supposed to be open-enrollment, meaning they can’t set admission criteria, but some people argue that charters benefit simply from enrolling children with more motivated parents.

Tennessee presented a different challenge for Barbic. There, he was charged with launching a special school district that included the state’s lowest-performing schools. A key part of Barbic’s mission was to recruit charter networks to step in and improve the schools. However, he ran into some trouble as most charter operators have a start-from-scratch model, rather than taking over existing schools. Even YES Prep withdrew from the experiment.

“As a charter school founder,” Barbic wrote in his resignation letter, “I did my fair share of chest pounding over great results. I’ve learned that getting these same results in a zoned neighborhood school environment is much harder.”

Houston ISD Superintendent Terry Grier picked up on Barbic’s comments and tweeted, “Chris Barbic — courage to tell truth!”

The Houston advocacy group Community Voices for Public Education also weighed in, taking Barbic’s statement as an admission that his success was “due more to smoke and mirrors.”

In fact, Barbic’s resignation letter does not go that far. He stands by his philosophy that good teachers and principals can make a significant difference in improving student achievement, despite the challenges of poverty.

“The ‘poverty trumps education’ argument sells our educators, and more importantly, our kids way too short,” Barbic wrote. “And it is perhaps one of the most dangerous propositions that exists in our country today.”

Read the whole thing, and be sure to read Barbic’s letter of resignation. Barbic is still very much an advocate for the charter model, but his words about the challenges of replicating the kind of success that some charters have had should be heeded. Tennessee’s Achievement School District experiment is one of only a couple like it around the country, but it’s an idea that has attracted attention, including here in Texas. There was a bill by Sen. Larry Taylor, chair of the Senate Education Committee, to establish Achievement School Districts, also called “Opportunity School Districts” here, in Texas, but it didn’t get anywhere. A “parent trigger” bill that would have allowed “parents of students at underperforming public schools to demand fixes from the state commissioner of education including hiring new staff, contracting with a charter school operator to take over management or closing the school altogether” did clear the Senate but did not get a vote in the House. I feel confident that Dan Patrick isn’t going to give up on either of these ideas in 2017, and Greg Abbott is a fan as well. Barbic himself defended the ASD concept in response to a Lisa Falkenberg column that was critical of an Abbott plan for some form of ASDs in Texas. I trust Barbic’s more recent words will come up when this idea inevitably comes up again in two years.

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.

Falkenberg on Abbott’s education plan

Lisa Falkenberg has a balanced take on Greg Abbott’s education plan.

Progress has been tragically slow for the students of North Forest. And their saga makes great fodder for those beating the drum to create something called an “achievement school district” in Texas. It would have the power to take over low-performing schools with the intent of turning them around, or turn them over to a charter operator.

Julie Linn, executive director of the well-financed Texans for Education Reform, was quoted in The Dallas Morning News telling lawmakers that an entire generation of students had been lost at the North Forest district during the chronic underachievement. True.

“If an achievement school district had existed,” Linn told lawmakers, “it would not have allowed 20 years of failure at North Forest ISD.”

I wasn’t so sure about that. Many of the failures were the result of the state’s own missteps. Conservators hired unqualified principals and poor-performing superintendents who squandered funds and donations. A parade of monitors and boards of managers had little effect.

But when I called North Forest’s new principal, Pamela Farinas, she supported the concept of achievement districts.

“I think it would have made a big difference,” Farinas said, explaining that every time the state took over North Forest it was the whole state, a “massive entity with a whole bunch of compliance paperwork.”

A small, specialized district knowledgeable about struggling schools would have more power and agility, she said. But she made clear she’s “150 percent” against turning to charters, which are often unwilling or unable to serve the neediest students.

“They’re exiting kids as quickly as they accept them and everybody seems to be brushing that under the carpet,” said Farinas, who worked briefly at a charter school.

[…]

On its face, the idea of a takeover district is attractive, especially with education horrors like the former North Forest still fresh on our minds.

We have to do something. But we can’t just do anything. I think I’m inclined to agree with David Anthony, the former Cypress-Fairbanks superintendent who now leads an influential education advocacy group called Raise Your Hand Texas.

He says the group has traveled the country looking at turnaround strategies. Anthony is not yet sold on the idea of achievement districts. The data just isn’t there.

Even in Tennessee, where homegrown superstar YES Prep Public Schools founder Chris Barbic went in 2011 to lead the effort to boost the bottom 5 percent of schools to the top 25 percent, students the first year made modest gains in science and math but fell behind in reading.

The answer, Anthony says, “has to be a long-term, sustainable transformation. It can’t just be the new fad du jour.”

Anthony’s chief concern about Abbott’s proposal is the same as mine: “Why are we investing in a strategy we’re not quite sure about yet?”

See here for more. I consider myself neither an advocate nor opponent of charter schools. The good ones are very good, but there are a lot of not so good ones, and overall the numbers suggest that charters as a whole don’t do any better than traditional public schools. It’s also never been clear to me that the charter model, which depends in large part on a high degree of commitment from students, parents, and (generally less-paid) teachers is scalable to the magnitude needed for this kind of problem. How will charter schools do when they have no choice at all about who they get to educate? That’s a pretty big question.

There’s another reason to be wary of this, and that reason is money. Part of that is about school funding, which is still well below 2009 levels thanks to the massive and as it turns out needless budget cuts of 2011. If we really want to try something that’s never been done before in our schools, why don’t we try funding them at truly adequate and equitable levels first? As Attorney General, Greg Abbott is in a unique position to do something about that by settling the ongoing school finance litigation. His continued refusal to do that, and his constant avoidance of any talk about school finance is quite revealing. But beyond that, there’s also the presence of yet another well-financed interest group on the scene that’s pushing for this change, Texans for Education Reform. Like black holes do with space-time, groups like that warp the discussion and suck in all the light in their vicinity. Who will benefit from Abbott’s plan? It’s a sure bet that the funders behind Texans for Education Reform are at the top of that list. That’s as good a reason as any to be deeply skeptical of this.

Abbott’s education plan

Some actual policy from Greg Abbott.

Still not Greg Abbott

In the 27-page, footnoted report that accompanied the press conference, he proposed to “create a swift, automatic process under which the very worst schools would be removed from the control of their local school districts each year” and instead run through the Texas Achievement School District. That district’s superintendent, appointed by the head of the Texas Education Agency, would have power to make radical changes to the schools, including the ability to fire personnel or turn the school over to a charter-school operator.

In New Orleans’ similar Recovery School District, the campaign noted, 60 percent of the schools are no longer rated academically unacceptable, and graduation rates and college readiness are climbing.

Under Abbott’s proposal, Texas would limit its recovery school district to elementary schools – an unusual step that would allow the district “to focus on students during the early phase of education when a child’s foundation for learning is first laid.”

Mike Feinberg, one of the founders of the KIPP charter-school chain, praised the Achievement School District concept.

“We’ve got to do something with schools that fail year after year,” he said. “It’s insanity for the state to keep wagging its finger, saying, ‘I mean it! One more year!’ That’s the worst way thing that a parent can do with a child. So why would we have that as state policy with schools?”

Abbott also argued that schools that are not failing need more autonomy.

“The state should set high standards, provide tools for success, then get out of the way,” he said at the press conference. “Our public education system is too centralized, with too many one-size-fits-all solutions being pushed down from the top.”

You have to admire a policy that calls for more autonomy on one hand and state takeovers of school districts on the other. Most people would pop the clutch shifting that abruptly, but Greg Abbott, he’s a pro. There may be some merit to the Texas Achievement School District idea, and the politics of it are complicated, but suffice it to say I’m skeptical. Of course, the 5.4 billion pound elephant in the room is Abbott’s lack of any mention of funding for schools. I can’t blame him for not wanting to talk about it, since he continues to defend the massive cuts from the 2011 session, especially in a time when the state coffers are overflowing. Must have been tough for him to pick a location to make his announcement, since so many districts are suing the state, as they did just a few years ago. Not surprising that he stuck close to themes that are comfortable to him.