Archives for category: Tennessee

The Alliance to Reclaim Our Public Schools (AROS) has gathered important information about state takeovers, which target disproportionate numbers of black and brown communities.


Be sure to check out this fact sheet.


When the fact sheet was published earlier this year, AROS identified 116 schools that were operating in state takeover districts in Louisiana, Michigan, and Tennessee. Of 44,000 students affected, 96% are African American or Latino.


The first consequence of the takeover is the abolition of elected school boards. Democracy ends, and the board is replaced by an appointed board, often made up of people who have no connection to the community.


The results have been disappointing. Nearly half the schools in the New Orleans Recovery School District are rated D or F by the state (other studies put the figure even higher). The charters in the Tennessee Achievement School District lag the performance of public schools. In Michigan’s Educational Achievement Authority, 79% of students either showed no improvement or lost ground on state tests.



T.C. Weber, a public school parent in Nashville, can’t understand why voters in Georgia would vote to create a state takeover of low-scoring schools to turn them over to charter operators. It hasn’t worked in Tennessee, despite the propaganda, and there’s no reason to believe that it will work anywhere else. What’s worse, it defunds public schools so that the charters get whatever they want.

“On November 8, Georgia residents will head to the polls, and, along with their presidential vote, will decide on whether or not to give the state the power to take over so-called failing schools. As a parent of two children who attend a school that sits right outside the periphery of the priority school list, I urge you reject this idea. No matter what they try to tell you, the Achievement School District in Tennessee has been an unmitigated failure. The only thing the ASD has been successful at is creating another government entity rife with financial mismanagement and becoming an endless source of debate as they constantly change goals.

“As I said earlier, I’ve got two children in a school that for all intents and purposes is a “priority school,” and I hate that term. First of all, I believe all schools should be “Priority Schools,” meaning that we should make it a priority that all schools have the resources they need. Taking schools and ranking them while ignoring their resource shortfalls gives us an inaccurate portrait of our educational system and allows us to ignore societal issues that need addressing. The focus becomes not on actual learning, but rather on standardized test results. I know the two should be the same, but unfortunately we all know they are not. Ranking schools in this manner further exacerbates an inequitable education experience for children because the emphasis becomes getting off the list versus providing the best possible well-rounded educational experience for all children.

“Let’s look at Nashville, for example. Currently, we have 11 schools on the state’s priority list. At a recent school board meeting, the newest plan was unveiled to rescue these priority schools. One of the elements of the plan was that we were no longer going to call underperforming schools “priority schools.” We were now going to refer to them as “innovation schools” because “priority” conveyed a sense of failure and punishment. That’s fine, you can change the language – something the reform movement is particularly adept at – but the state will still refer to these schools as priority schools. And if they fail to improve, the state will reassign them to the state’s innovation zone, the Achievement School District, which has proven to be not so innovative after all. Their idea of innovation has more to do with growing the charter sector than with their stated goal of moving the bottom 5% of schools to the top 25%. Any local action is potentially neutered by the vulture on its perch waiting to pounce.

“So if an ASD-type program gets approved in your state, what follows is a plan of action that focuses on getting these schools to show growth in the only measurement that matters to the state, the standardized test. Want to take a class on a field trip to the state museum? Well, that’s great, but how’s that going to improve literacy scores? Want to teach a novel to your class? Yeah, that’s nice, but we have other strategies that’ll have a bigger impact on test scores and we’d prefer you utilize that time for them. Thank God there are still teachers willing to buck the system or it would be test prep all the time, which is basically already happening in a lot of places.”

Gary Rubinstein has followed the evolution of the Tennessee Achievement School District closely since it was launched in 2011.

In this post, he warns reformers and others to beware of copying the concept. It failed. Do not replicate failure might be the message. Although states like North Carolina, Georgia, and Nevada seem determined to replicate the ASD, regardless of its failure.

The ASD, you may recall, pledged to take the bottom-scoring 5% of schools in the state and vault them to the top 25% in five years. It hasn’t happened. As Gary shows, achievement gains have been negligible at best.

Despite the failure of the ASD to meet its goals, the new Every Student Succeeds Act endorses the idea that the state should take over the bottom 5% of schools and fix them. ASD have proved that this is no simple matter.

Gary writes:

Each time the idea of creating an ASD is introduced by a state legislator, testimony from people whose own professional futures depend on the perception of success in the Tennessee ASD are used to get the required votes. Various education reform lobbyist groups produce reports and blogs about how successful these ASDs have been.

I think that education is a true science and one that deserves to evolve according to the scientific method. In the case of these ASDs, the initial conjecture would be that tenured teachers cause low test scores. The experiment to verify this conjecture is to create an ASD somewhere like Tennessee, fire the tenured teachers, and let the charter schools take over and teach the students. Education reformers seem to have no problem with these first steps. But the power of the scientific method is completely nullified when the results of the experiment are ignored when they contradict the working conjecture. That is what has happened in this case and why ASDs are gaining momentum around the country.

Any state considering making an ASD would be wise to listen to the words of the pioneer of the Tennessee ASD, former superintendent, Chris Barbic. A few months ago on a panel discussion Barbic was asked if he thought it was good that various states were considering replicating his program. Even he had his doubts. He said that there is a very limited supply of charters capable of executing these difficult turnaround efforts. If twelve states, he said, are all trying to get the same four or five charter operators, “it’s gonna create an issue.” Considering his dream team of charter operators could not move the original ASD schools out of the bottom 5%, this is a sobering assessment of the viability of creating franchises of these turnaround districts around the country.

Education reform is full of false promises and magic beans. Whether it is charter schools, test-based teacher evaluations, school closures, merit pay, making a more difficult curriculum, common core standardized tests, computerized learning, these strategies should not proliferate based on skewed PR, but on actual merit. How can we expect kids to become critical thinkers when decisions about their future are made by people who refuse to be critical thinkers themselves?

An outside auditor of Tennessee’s famed-but-failed Achievement School District found that the group’s finances were a mess.

The Achievement School District was created to prove that ASD could take control of the state’s lowest scoring schools (in the bottom 5% of the state) and move them to the top 25% in only five years. The clock began ticking in 2012, when ASD took over half a dozen schools. An independent study by researchers at Vanderbilt University found no evidence that ASD was on track to meet that goal. Gary Rubinstein analyzed the numbers and concluded that the original schools turned over to charters were still in the bottom 5% (although one rose to the bottom 7%). Of course, they still have a year to go, so let’s not rush to judgment! (Georgia, North Carolina, and Nevada are all planning to create special districts modeled on Tennessee’s ASD, which supposedly knows how to turnaround low-performing schools even though it hasn’t. But when has failure ever deterred corporate-style reformers?)

But it turns out that the ASD’s finances were a mess, according to auditors.

It’s in charge of turning around Tennessee’s failing schools, but the state’s Achievement School District now has its own flunking grade from state Comptroller watchdogs.

The just-released audit by the Division of State Audit provides a blistering critique into what auditors say the agency’s lack of internal financial controls over basic functions.

So just how bad are things at the agency that directly manages five public schools and contracts with private charter groups to operate 24 other schools falling into the bottom five percent of schools statewide in terms of student performance?

Even as Division of State Audit accountants’ examination was still underway this spring, the state Department of Education, which had allowed the ASD to operate independently, informed the Comptroller’s office in April that it had staged an intervention and seized control over the ASD’s “fiscal and federal processes.”

As a result, the functions were transferred from Memphis to Nashville with a turnover of the ASD’s financial staff. Education Commissioner Candice McQueen’s staff told auditors they were hiring a fiscal director, fiscal manager, accountant, account tech, federal programs director and federal programs manager.

Problem areas cited by the Division of State Audit ranged from loose controls over spending, travel and credit cards to insufficient monitoring of the actual schools that ASD runs or contracts out.

Specific findings include:

1) The Achievement School District’s management did not establish adequate controls over several key human resources and payroll processes

State law directs that it “shall develop written procedures, subject to the approval of the commissioner, for employment and management of personnel as well as the development of compensation and benefit plans.”

“During our audit,” watchdogs wrote, “we found seven key areas where ASD did not establish processes over key human resources and payroll functions, including segregating duties; maintaining personnel files; verifying education credentials; documenting time and attendance; completing performance reviews; documenting approvals of bonuses and pay raises; and exiting employees.

2) The Achievement School District’s management “failed to implement adequate internal controls over its expenditures, travel claims, and purchasing card purchases

“Based on our testwork,” auditors wrote, “we found several deficiencies that indicate that ASD management did not establish adequate internal controls over expenditures and purchasing card purchases. Specifically, we noted that management did not properly approve expenditures, travel claims, and purchasing card purchases, nor did they provide adequate support for some transactions.

3) The Achievement School District’s fiscal management “did not perform sufficient fiscal monitoring of its direct-run schools and charter management organizations

“Considering the problems identified in previous Tennessee Single Audits,” auditors noted, “we inquired with management to determine if ASD management conducted fiscal monitoring of ASD’s Achievement Schools and charter management organizations; we found that ASD’s main office staff do not conduct such monitoring.

In one instance, auditors discovered there were payments of $5,895 to employees who no longer even worked for ASD.

Among other things, auditors also couldn’t find six expenditure transactions for a dental insurance premium, donation, coffee supplies, and accrual calculations, totaling $131,637, and for three travel claims for a flight and expenses involving charter school operators. That totalled $4,734 and, the audit says, “management could not provide supporting documentation.”

I read this story shortly after finishing a revealing memoir called Sex, Lies, and A Charter School: The Misappropriation of Your Tax Dollars. The author, Dikombi Gite, lives in Houston, where he was born. He became an engineer, but decided that he wanted to try his hand as a teacher and “give back.” He was sure he could connect with kids because he shared their life experiences. He didn’t have any teaching credentials, so he couldn’t be hired by the Houston public schools. He was hired immediately by a charter chain, where he struggled as a teacher. The chain is not identified, but it started in Houston and has (he says) 80 charters. Within months, he was moved into the office to manage the school’s books. What he learned in his brief life at the charter school was that the place appeared swell on the surface, but it was in fact riven by strife, affairs among staff members, fights among students, cronyism, nepotism, missing money, and more chaos than he could manage. Could the same story have been written about a public school? Perhaps. But not as likely because few of the teachers were professionals, and few of the administrators were professionals. People were hired and fired on a moment’s notice, no background checks. The thing that mattered most was attendance, because the flow of money depended on the head count. It is a well-written book (self-published by the author) and very revealing about what happens when there is no supervision, no oversight, no transparency, and no accountability. Funny, another book I was reading last night repeated the reformers’ claim that the key to success was school autonomy: no restraints, no constraints, no unions, no oversight. A grand theory. This book tells a different story. The author’s address is: POB 331753, Houston, TX. 77233. His email:

The local press in Nashville reported recently that the pro-privatization political outfit called “Stand for Children” had amassed a war chest of $200,000 to fund the campaigns of charter advocates for the Metro Nashville school board. Across the state of Tennessee, the Oregon-based SFC was spending $700,000 in state and local races, apparently to assure Continued Republican dominance of the state.

Yesterday a liberal advocacy group and a Metro Nasville parent asked for an investigation of the ties between SFC and the candidates it supports:

“Consumer rights group Tennessee Citizen Action and a Metro Schools parent plan to file a petition requesting an investigation into potential campaign finance violations involving Stand for Children after questions emerged over whether the group illegally coordinated with pro-charter school candidates.”

SFC is now a money-laundering operation for the plutocrats who hope to eliminate public schools. The hedge fund managers, billionaires, and equity investors are pouring money into key school board races across the country, hoping to undermine democracy–since locals who are committed to public schools are vastly outspent–and to promote privatization.

When the charter industry decides to expand in your district or state, one thing is certain: Bitter divisiveness will follow, as the night follows the day.

The school board elections become pitched battles between friends of charters and friends of public schools. Parents fight over who goes to charter schools and over resources taken away from public schools to fund charter schools.

One of the most heated school board races this fall will take place in Nashville, where the charter industrial complex has targeted board members who support public schools. The money is pouring in from wealthy contributors to knock out Amy Frogge (a hero of this blog), Will Pinkston, and Jill Speering, all of whom have fought to keep the charter zealots from destroying public education.

The parasitic Stand On Children is handing out big bucks to candidates who prefer charter schools. Rich corporate leaders and right-wingers are funding the charteristas.

The model campaign last time was run by Amy Frogge, a lawyer and public school parent who was elected despite her opponent’s 5-1 war chest advantage.

Tired of seeing the board led by supporters of public education, the privatizers are making a move to defeat the board members who have stood in their way.

If you care about education in Tennessee, do what you can to support the friends of public schools.

Chalkbeat Tennessee has an excellent report on Tennessee’s testing fiasco. State officials knew that the testing company was in deep trouble before the testing began, yet they plunged ahead, wasting millions of dollars.

Grace Tatter describes Tennessee’s “worst case scenario”:

Tennessee education officials allowed students and teachers to go ahead with a new online testing system that had failed repeatedly in classrooms across the state, according to emails obtained by Chalkbeat.

After local districts spent millions of dollars on new computers, iPads, and upgraded internet service, teachers and students practiced for months taking the tests using MIST, an online testing system run by North Carolina-based test maker Measurement Inc.
They encountered myriad problems: Sometimes, the test questions took three minutes each to load, or wouldn’t load at all. At other times, the test wouldn’t work on iPads. And in some cases, the system even saved the wrong answers.

When students in McMinnville, a town southeast of Nashville, logged on to take their practice tests, they found some questions already filled in — incorrectly — and that they couldn’t change the answers. The unsettling implication: Even if students could take the exam, the scores would not reflect their skills.

“That is a HUGE issue to me,” Warren County High School assistant principal Penny Shockley wrote to Measurement Inc.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen speaks with reporters in February about technical problems with the state’s new online assessment.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen speaks with reporters in February about technical problems with the state’s new online assessment.

The emails contain numerous alarming reports about practice tests gone awry. They also show that miscommunication between officials with the Tennessee Department of Education and Measurement Inc. made it difficult to fix problems in time for launch.

And they suggest that even as problems continued to emerge as the test date neared, state officials either failed to understand or downplayed the widespread nature of the problems to schools. As a result, district leaders who could have chosen to have students take the test on paper instead moved forward with the online system.

The messages span from October until Feb. 10, two days after the online test’s debut and cancellation hours later. Together, they offer a peek into how Tennessee wound up with a worst-case scenario: countless hours wasted by teachers and students preparing for tests that could not be taken.

TC Weber is a parent blogger in Nashville. He writes here about the testing chaos in Tennessee.


When the contractor didn’t deliver the tests in time, testing was canceled. Then came part two, the tests were delayed again, but eventually many kids took the tests. Tennessee fired the contractor, forced students to take the tests, then gave Pearson a contract for $18.5 million just to score the tests.



Just for scoring tests! How great is that! Way to go, Pearson!


Maybe some of the details are wrong. Read TC’s post.


Bottom line: Tennessee is squandering millions of dollars for useless tests. Wake up! End the nightmare!

Gary Rubinstein has been watching Tennessee’s “Achievement School District” since it started. The original promise was that the ASD would gather the lowest performing schools in the state–from the bottom 5%–and lift them to the top 25% in the state in five years. They are nowhere near that goal.


The state data was recently released, and it showed that five of the six schools in the first cohort are still in the bottom 5%. The sixth school is in the bottom 7%.


This matters a lot because several states are now planning to create similar districts, based on the model of Tennessee’s ASD. The planning is underway in Georgia, North Carolina, and Nevada. There may be more.


The basic idea is that the state takes control of low-performing schools away from local districts,then hands them over to charter operators. The charters work their magic, and the schools are supposed to be transformed. But after four years, it hasn’t happened in Tennessee. Since Tennessee canceled its state tests this year due to technical problems, there won’t be a fifth year score.


When Chalkbeat reported this story recently, it said:


“The lowest 5 percent is still dominated by schools in Memphis and Nashville. Of the 84 worst-performing schools in Tennessee, nearly all are operated through Shelby County Schools, the ASD and Metro Nashville Public Schools. Chattanooga has six, Knoxville four, and Jackson two. Districts in Sevier and Fayette counties, which are primarily rural, have schools that are on a state list for the first time. As has been the case in the past, the bottom 5 percent schools are almost exclusively in low-income communities of color….


Rubinstein says this story never got the attention it deserved, and he is right. Other states would be foolish to copy this failed experiment.




Governor Bill Haslam of Tennessee signed into law a bill that allows mental health professionals to refuse service to anyone based on their religious beliefs.


The American Counseling Association has announced that it may cancel its annual conference, now scheduled for April 2017, if the law is not repealed.


Governor Haslam will be the keynote speaker at a conference at the Harvard Graduate School of Education on May 17. Perhaps other participants will question him about this legislation. Perhaps Harvard President Drew Faust will chastise him in her introductory remarks for signing legislation that is unacceptable at Harvard or in Massachusetts or in most states. Apparently, other states have adopted similar laws, on the theory that a person with sincere religious beliefs should be legally permitted to refuse service to anyone who offends those beliefs.


Peter Greene commented on the law as permitting discrimination against any group that is different.


Greene wrote:


So Governor Bill Haslam of Tennessee today signed a law that allows mental health counselors to refuse patients based on the therapist’s religion or personal beliefs.


That means that a Christian counselor could refuse to see a Muslim, or an atheist, or a pastafarian. That means a Southern Baptist could refuse to see a Catholic. That means an anti-abortion person could refuse to treat a woman who’s had an abortion. A staunch conservative could refuse to treat someone struggling with infidelity in their marriage. A racist can refuse to see anyone who’s not white. That means a counselor could turn away a woman who’s wearing too short a skirt, or holds down a job outside the home, or who uses birth control. That means a republican therapist could refuse to treat a democrat, or vice versa– and both could refuse to treat a socialist. And of course, anybody can refuse to see an LGBT patient.


I am imagining someone who’s hit a rough patch trying to find a counselor, looking through the yellow pages for a Jewish vegan feminist republican counselor who believes in attachment parenting. Presumably some folks, like the Green Party gay pro-gun Wiccan, would just have to drive to some other state.


One of our Tennessee readers added the following comment:


I wonder what the organizers at Harvard were thinking when they asked BIll Haslam to speak at this ‘illustrious’ summit. His accomplishments in scholarship & policy initiatives are, at best, underwhelming.


Gov.Haslam is the son of TN’s billionaire Jim (“Big Jim”) Haslam family who own Pilot Oil & Flying J Truckstops. His family control of the Republican Party bought him 3 elections – one as Mayor of Knoxville & 2 terms as Gov of TN. The family’s venture philanthropy buys the silence of critics in the local press & in higher education.


The Haslam family business is under FBI investigation for multiple counts of fraud


His legacy as governor is outsourcing public education, privatizing state workers & maintenance operations, privatizing our beautiful state parks, privatizing Dept of Children’s Services, cutting capital gains taxes, cutting the inheritance tax, passing a constitutional amendment prohibiting a state income tax, assuring TN remains the state with the highest number of workers earning minimum wage or below, and no healthcare for the poor.


He gave Tennesseans Kevin Huffman, Candice McQueen, and in a Dept of Ed staffed with TFA. Arne Duncan visited TN regularly to brag on our “progress” in edu-reform.


Thanks to Haslam, Tennesseans can carry guns on campus & in schools, our state book is the bible, we have a state gun, and a new state logo, fracking on the Plateau, cabinet advisors from Americans for Prosperity, the Milton Friedman Foundation, and The Charter School Associations.