An “Achievement School District” Primer, Or Why Charterizing Your School District is a Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Idea


“Achievement School Districts” are a recent phenomenon in the corporate education reform movement. These “school districts” are designed to guarantee “rapid improvement in the state’s low performing schools”, although specific methods, techniques and strategies to accomplish this goal are rarely mentioned. ASDs have sprung up all across the nation, under various names and guises, from the “Education Achievement Authority” in Detroit, to the “Recovery School District” in New Orleans, to “Achievement School Districts” in Tennessee and Nevada–and Georgia and North Carolina have recently announced plans to form their own ASDs. These experimental school systems usually target the “bottom 5%” of low-performing schools in a state or region for governmental takeover, with the promise of quickly improving student learning.

The one thing all of these experiments have in common is that they’ve been crashing failures. In spite of incredible amounts of publicity, spin and hoopla, not one of these educational petri dishes has resulted in any appreciable improvement in student learning, accountability, or curricular reform.

  • In Tennessee, audits of the ASD uncovered problems in the way that federal dollars were handled and the way payments were being processed. In a related story, Chris Barbic, the founding superintendent of the TNASD, recently announced his resignation.
  • In a disturbingly similar development, Detroit’s EAA manager, John Covington, resigned from his position after less than 2 years of service amidst heated criticism “for high rates of student and teacher turnover, questionable spending on travel and expenses, problems with special education services and the use of a computer-based curriculum rather than traditional textbooks.”
  • And in New Orleans, despite former Gov. Bobby Jindal’s claims of miraculous improvements since the inception of the city’s Recovery School District, recent research tells a very different story, with only “6 percent of high school seniors in the Recovery School District (scoring) high enough in English and Math to qualify for admission into a Louisiana four-year college or university straight out of high school. Five of the district’s 16 high schools produced not a single student who met these requirements.”

An Achievement School District Primer

How do you know if your state is considering creating an Achievement School District? Well, Achievement School Districts are characterized by several traits, none of which makes even the tiniest amount of sense in terms of helping to improve student learning or teaching quality:

School Funding

Individual ASD schools are often required to pay a “kickback” or “tax” to the state ASD authority for the “privilege” of being identified as a “low performing school”. In Nevada, “ASD schools receive the same state and local per-pupil resources that they would have received as part of their original home district. This includes local, state, and federal funding. As with other charter school sponsors, the ASD will receive a small administrative fee from each school it authorizes.” (bold added)

In other words, in spite of the probability that an ASD school has been chronically underfunded for years, perhaps decades, the state will now take its own cut from whatever local, state and federal funding the school may be receiving for administrative overhead, further decreasing the actual number of dollars that are going to classrooms, teachers and children.

Local Control

Local control, long recognized as a hallmark of public education, is a dinosaur in ASDs. In Detroit, the locally-elected school board still meets, but has essentially been stripped of all power and authority. The members of the elected school board refer to themselves as being “exiled,” and the newly elected state superintendent of schools has called on the governor and state legislators to return control of the Detroit Public Schools to the local school board, saying, “I believe we ought to have a Detroit school district for the Detroit community.” Instead, Gov. Rick Snyder implemented a radical plan to split the city’s schools into two districts: one to educate children, and the other devoted to addressing the district’s debt problem.


Even though it is often trumpeted as an integral aspect of effective school governance, very few ASDs follow their own propaganda when it comes to transparency in reporting. Detroit’s EAA is an especially notorious offender in this respect, making claims that do not stand even the faintest amounts of scrutiny. According to Wayne State professor of education Thomas Pedroni, the EAA’s “internal data directly contradicts their MEAP data. Even Scantron, the maker of the internal assessment, would not stand behind the EAA’s growth claims. And Veronica Conforme, the current EAA Chancellor, removed all the dishonest growth claims from their advertising and their website, and told me personally she doesn’t give them credence for the purpose the EAA used them for.” For more from Dr. Pedroni on the EAA’s specious relationship with transparency, see this, and this.

Punitive vs. Educative Methods

Many ASD charters include language regarding the possible consequences if schools do not meet “adequate yearly progress” goals, such as: “Operators of ASD schools that do not demonstrate meaningful improvement will be held accountable pursuant to policies set by the ASD.” Indeed, school closings have become a prominent tool in the school reform playbook:

  • Washington, D.C. closed 23 buildings in 2008. Officials are currently considering another 15 closures.
  • New York City closed more than 140 schools since 2002; leaders recently announced plans to shutter 17 more, beginning in 2013-14.
  • Chicago closed 40-plus buildings in the early 2000s. The district recently released a list of 129 schools to be considered for closure.

This approach follows guidelines first established in the No Child Left Behind legislation, which stipulate draconian changes for any school that fails to meet yearly progress within five years:

  1. Reopening the school as a charter school;
  2. Replacing all or most of school staff;
  3. Turning over the school operations to the state or to a private company with a demonstrated record of effectiveness; or
  4. Other major governance restructuring.

This thinking represents a sea change in terms of strategy with respect to schooling and education policy. Never in our nation’s history have we taken a punitive approach rather than an educative approach when schools or children have struggled with demonstrating expected levels of progress.

When students experience difficulties in learning we respond by providing remediation, extra tutoring, or alternative teaching strategies–we don’t kick them out of school. By the same token, when under-funded and under-resourced public schools do not show “adequate yearly progress,” our response should be to find out why these schools are struggling, and provide them with the materials and support they need to improve–not for the charter management companies that run these schools to walk away before the end of the school year, forcing families to scramble to get their kids placed into public schools with little notice and no assistance.

Public education is far too important to treat it like a science experiment, with fuzzy methodology and uncertain results. Our children deserve schools that are adequately funded, controlled by locally elected school boards made up of persons with ties to the community and a vested interest in the success of their schools, transparency in reporting of school finances and learning outcomes, and that are founded and administrated with educative goals in mind, not punitive ones.

It’s time to demand the return of our schools and our children from Achievement School Districts and the forces of school privatization.

Education is not a business, and our children aren’t widgets.