NC being too hasty on Achievement School Districts

We should always be open to trying new ideas to improve education but also be careful not to chase every new fad on the market. This caution is especially so when the new ideas are for public schools where poverty and racial segregation are highly concentrated.

Unfortunately, hurrying to install a new unproven fad may well be the case for some of North Carolina’s lowest-performing schools. State Rep. Bob Bryan and the N.C. legislature will soon consider taking over up to five schools and placing them in a kind of separate virtual reality of their own. The concept, known as an Achievement School District, would get special resources and be managed by private charter school operators that would report to the State Board of Education.

There are at least three major problems with Achievement School Districts being considered for NC: They have a short history and little effectiveness research. They spend large amounts of public tax dollars on often sketchy private companies that collect significant fees. And there is no evidence that they work.

We applaud the intention to help under-resourced and under-performing schools struggling under the yoke of high poverty rates and are encouraged by the willingness to finally provide the considerable resources long needed to assist children suffering the debilitating effects of poverty. Nearly 25 percent of children in America live at the poverty level now, and it’s worse in North Carolina. It is the great shame of our prosperous country.

This proposed effort is modeled after the Tennessee Achievement School District with the schools primarily from Memphis and Nashville. Tennessee received millions of dollars from the federally sponsored and now much maligned Race to the Top program to develop its state ASD. Evaluation was required of the Tennessee ASD and was provided in an extensive assessment by researchers at Vanderbilt University. The researchers concluded that the ASD had provided no positive gains for students and had not been able to deliver on lofty promises to parents.

More startling, the Vanderbilt study found that local school district efforts aimed at Turn Around Schools in Memphis and Nashville had yielded more improvement than the Tennessee state-run Achievement School District .

The Vanderbilt study suggests that North Carolina would do better to leave the schools in their local districts and give them the resources, assistance and autonomy to do the job. This would also negate the need to spend vast resources on privately operated management companies, some of which have a poor track record and even malfeasance in some states.

The Michigan State Senate closed its Education Achievement Authority in February after four years of operation. According to the Michigan Center for Educational Performance and Information, the profit/fee based private charter operators had generated much community discord and were plagued with mismanagement and corruption.

In Tennessee, companion bills were filed in the State Legislature to close the Tennessee Achievement School District by July 2017 and return oversight to the local school districts. Moreover, due to considerable community backlash, the Tennessee Black Caucus and the Democratic Caucus supported a moratorium on the Tennessee ASD.

We believe, with this kind of evidence in hand, it would be unconscionable and foolhardy for the N.C. legislature to pursue the Achievement School District for N.C. schools.

Stronger and more effective solutions may be found in another poverty school assistance effort called the i-Zone Schools (innovation zone schools ). The schools remain under the control of the local districts in this concept. The same Vanderbilt study also studied the i-Zone schools, and the researchers reported some significant improvements in those schools.

There is no secret sauce for the i-Aone schools except that they adhere to known beneficial practices. Not unlike charter schools, they receive some freedom from state regulations, more financial autonomy and more flexible scheduling and working conditions. In addition, they go after excellent teachers, promote innovation and seek closer community involvement – hardly breakthrough innovations but highly effective.

In fact, why shouldn’t all public schools in N.C. be able to benefit from these strategies ? It doesn’t take an i-Zone designation to do so. The NC legislature has the ability to assist all schools with these conditions for the common good in North Carolina right now.

Andy Overstreet as a retired professor in the College of Education at N.C. State University. Henry Johnson is a former associate state schools superintendent in North Carolina.