Gary Rubinstein, myth buster, takes a hard look at Tennessee’s Achievement School District and finds less than it claims. Gary has a brilliant way of pulling data apart and finding manipulation and tricks. He does it here, slowly and methodically

Tennessee’s State Commissioner Kevin Huffman (ex-TFA, Michelle Rhee’s first spouse) brought Chris Barbic to Tennessee to create a statewide districts made up of the state’s lowest performing schools. Barbic, founder of the YES Prep charter chain in Houston, pledged that the schools in the Achievement School District would move from the bottom 5% to the top 25% in the state in five years.

Gary writes:

“The first cohort of the ASD was 6 schools started in the 2012-2013 school year. This grew to 17 schools in 2013-2014, and now 23 schools for 2014-2015. I was skeptical of this plan from the beginning. As I wrote to Chris in one of my open letters, still unanswered, I felt like this was a goal that can only be achieved by some sort of cheating or lying. One cheat that is happening is that many of the charter schools did not take over existing schools but became new schools which phased in one grade at a time. This makes it pretty hard to say that a school that never existed was originally in the bottom 5% of schools.”

Reviewing the ASD’s claims, Gary sees that some schools allegedly are making large gains while others are not. The “miracle” school appears to be Frayser 9GA.

Gary’s antennae go up when he hears miracle talk, so he investigated and found this:

“What I learned is that Frayser 9GA isn’t, technically, a school for which it is possible to calculate the growth between 2013 and 2014. Also, it is debatable, if it can be counted as a school at all. Here’s why:

“Westside Achievement Middle school, the one that had the dropping scores in the bar graphs above, serves students in grades 6-8. They were one of the original 6 ASD schools in 2012-2013. Rather than send their eighth graders to Frayser High School in 2013-2014, they decided to expand Westside Achievement Middle school to have a 9th grade in their building. They enrolled 99 students and called the ‘school’ Frayser 9GA for ‘9th Grade Academy.’ 2013-2014 was the first year that this school existed, which is why comparing their scores for their 99 9th graders to the scores of already existing Frayser high school is not a fair comparison. This article from the local Memphis newspaper explains that 85% of the 8th grade class at Westside Achievement Middle School wanted to continue at that school for the new 9th grade program.”

He concludes:

“But the ASD decided to call the 9th grader program at Westside Achievement Middle School, all 99 students there, its own ‘school’ rather than what it actually is, a grade in the school. It is not playing by the rules to pick a grade out of a school, call it its own school and then plot it on a graph as if it was an actual school that was once in the bottom 5% of schools and that with the help of the ASD catapulted to the top 50%. So the question is, how is it that this school is failing to grow their 6th, 7th, and 8th graders in 2013-2014, yet they are getting miraculous results with their 9th graders? And what would the score for this school be if they counted the four grades as one school rather than pulling out the 9th grade class and calling that its own school?”

Gary Rubinstein’s conclusion: no miracle school. He wonders what will happen to the reformers as their promises fail to materialize, as their promises don’t come true in the states and districts they control. Spin, hype, and fancy brochures with multicolor graphs will take you just so far and no farther:

“It is fortunate for Duncan that he will be out of office when the house of cards that is the ASD comes tumbling down, three years from now. I’ve noticed that many reformers have been going into hiding lately: Wendy Kopp stepped down from being CEO of TFA. Michelle Rhee stepped down from being CEO of StudentsFirst. Others will surely follow into the safety of their underground bunkers. Duncan will leave office and will surely find a safe place to hide from all the questions as the reform movement continues to collapse. What will happen to my old friend Chris Barbic when this all goes down? He’s always been a decent guy. I worry he might be the only one with enough principle to go down with the ship while the others cowardly abandon it.”