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Gary Rubinstein’s Blog: Follow the Yellow Brick Load

Tennessee’s Achievement School District (ASD) is the golden child of the reformers.  The mission of the ASD is to take schools in the bottom 5% of the state and, within five years, propel them into the top 25% in the state.  Like the Recovery School District (RSD) in Louisiana, the primary turnaround strategies used in the ASD is to convert the schools into charter schools.  Throughout the country it is being touted as a successful model to be replicated in numerous states including Nevada and Pennsylvania.

So far there have been two years of data and, by any objective standards, the experiment is floundering.  Of the six original ASD schools, two now have lower scores, two have about the same scores, and two have improved scores.  Of the two that have improved scores, one of them, Brick Church College Prep, is, supposedly, proving what’s possible and, according to ASD superintendent Chris Barbic, on track to get into the top 25% a year ahead of schedule — after just four years.

From that article:

The special statewide district is taking over the lowest-performing schools in the state with a goal of moving them into the top 25 percent in just five years. Now in year three, superintendent Chris Barbic says he’s encouraged.

“You know, when we first talked about this, this was a goal that folks thought was completely crazy. And I think we’re learning is that not only is it not crazy, but we’ve got three of our first six schools that are on track to do it.”

One of those three schools on the right trajectory is Brick Church Pike College Prep in Nashville, which is slowly being converted into a charter school run by LEAD Academy. Barbic says if Brick Church matches this year’s student growth in math and reading, it would leap into the top quartile a year early.

Reformers are very good at cherry picking to prove whatever point they are trying to make.  In this case, if Brick Church really has proved that it is possible to turnaround a school by turning it into a charter school then, well, all we have to do is replicate this success.  Just one isolated success justifies the entire existence of the ASD.

When I heard about the ASD plan, I was very skeptical and even wrote one of my ‘open letters’ to the ASD superintendent Chris Barbic, who I’ve known for over twenty years.  It’s not that I think that most schools can’t do a better job.  But I don’t believe that most schools will improve much by only replacing their staffs.  When I hear about a a school that increased its test scores by twenty percentage points in a two year period, my suspicion is that it wasn’t the teachers who were replaced, but the students.

The original idea of the ASD was supposed to be that the charter schools would take over district zoned schools so that there could be no accusations that the score improvements were due to having different students.  But of the six original schools, the only two that are supposedly improving both did what’s called ‘phase-ins’ where they, for example, take a 5-8 school and only take the new incoming fifth graders the first year and then add a new fifth grade each year until they have taken over the whole school.  Of course this makes it tough to compare the pre and post takeover scores since none of the students they take were ever actually in the old school.

So let’s look at the Brick Church scores.  Before the takeover 2011-2012 they had 17.7% proficient in math and 19.9% proficient in reading.  After the first year with their 5th grade class in 2012-2013 their numbers were 24.2% in math and 12.8% in reading.  Then in 2013-2014 with their sixth graders and their new class of fifth graders their scores rose to 41.2% for math and 37.2% for reading.  So if they continue to go up by 17% in math and 24% in reading for the next two years they will have met the goal of going from the bottom 5% to the top 25%.

Other charter schools haven’t had such success so I checked out the Tennessee education data.  It wasn’t easy to find, but eventually I came upon what I was looking for, something that would allow me to compare the test scores for incoming 5th graders to different schools to see if the new crop of Brick Church fifth graders are truly the ‘same kids’ as the ones that were at the persistently failing Brick Church Middle School.  Also, these plots allowed me to compare the ‘growth’ of the Brick Church students to see if their high test scores were because they had started with high test scores or if they ‘grew’ to those scores from low starting points.

Below are four revealing plots directly from the Tennessee website which certainly remove some of the mystique of the Brick Church miracle.

5th grade reading all

The above plot compares ‘entering achievement’ to ‘growth index’ for fifth graders at every school in Tennessee.  As can be seen, Brick Church fifth graders came in with about a 42 ‘entering achievement’ which is most certainly not in the bottom 5% and their ‘growth index’ is around a 0 which means that their high test scores were not a result of school induced ‘growth.’

5th grade math all

Similar graph for fifth grade math.  They had ‘entering achievement’ near the middle with near 0 ‘growth.’

Now here’s those same two plots with just the 13 ASD schools:5th grade reading ASD

This is for fifth grade reading for the ASD schools.  Notice that Brick Church fifth graders had ‘entering achievement’ significantly higher than all the other ASD schools.  Also notice that the 0 growth index is much easier to see on this plot.5th grade math asd

And here we see that Brick Church also had significantly higher ‘entering achievement’ in math than the other ASD schools.  It is no wonder that they are the highest performing ASD school.

Besides a hard rectangular prism used to build houses, the word ‘Brick’ generally has negative connotations.  In basketball it’s when a ball bounces hard off the front rim.  A ‘brick’ of cocaine is something you never want to be found in your trunk when you’re pulled over for a traffic violation.  And as more and more accurate data about the kinds of lying that reformers do to keep their jobs get uncovered, surely they will start ‘pooping’ bricks.

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Gary Rubinstein

Gary Rubinstein is a high school math teacher. He is the recipient of the 2005 Math for America Master Teacher Fellowship. ...