Study: Tennessee's Charter-Heavy "Achievement School District" Schools Do Worse Than District-Run Turnaround Schools

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  • Courtesy of PhotoSpin
Today's post in honor of School Choice Week: A Tennessee experiment in improving low-performing schools using a state run, charter-heavy "Achievement School District" (ASD) and a district-run school turnaround model (iZone). Recent research indicates the ASD schools had no overall effect while students in the iZone schools showed measurable improvement.

Tennessee received $500 million in federal Race to the Top money to improve its lowest performing schools and doled it out to various improvement models. According to a Vanderbilt Peabody College study, where the districts created turnaround iZone schools, they saw "moderate to large positive effects in Reading, Math and Science with strong consistent effects across subjects for Memphis iZone schools." The ASD schools had years with gains and years with losses, ending up with no overall improvement.

Democrats in the Tennessee state legislature are using data from the Vanderbilt study to try and close the Achievement School District and turn the schools back to the districts, which will have the option of keeping them as charter schools or revoking the charter agreements.

A number of overlapping conclusions can be drawn from the Tennessee school experiment.

One is, when states take over functions that are usually locally controlled, bad things happen. The most glaring, catastrophic example is the water disaster in Flint, Michigan, where the state took over control of the city and created a lead poisoning epidemic which will have lifelong consequences for Flint' children. When school districts are taken over by the state, it rarely results in improvement and often makes things worse.

Another conclusion is that charter schools as a group are no more effective at educating students than "traditional" district schools, and sometimes they're less effective. The best head-to-head comparison studies of similar students in charters and district schools show charters doing better in some locations and district schools doing better in other locations. The overall national results are very close.

A third conclusion, one that's gaining credence, is that charters can show excellent results when they use various selection processes to cream the most able and conscientious students from a population, but when they have to serve a broad cross section of students in an area and hold onto those students over a number of years, their apparent successes diminish or vanish.

And of course, the Tennessee experiment may mean nothing at all. It's only been three years, not much time to measure long term educational effects, and the ASD may have been poorly constructed, which would have limited its positive effects. But the results certainly aren't an advertisement for the superiority of the charter school model.

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