"What did Ronald Reagan comprehend that many current conservatives fail to see? This quote encapsulates it perfectly: "The most frightening words in the English language are, 'I'm from the government and I'm here to help.'" Reagan understood that the government was not the answer; it was the problem."
Consider the Achievement School District (ASD) in Tennessee if you are searching for an example of a failed approach to school reform. Many, including myself, prefer more individualized intervention methods than those used by the ASD. State budget records show that our state has spent over a billion dollars on the ASD.
The ASD has not improved student achievement in any academic subject or cohort of schools since its creation. Most ASD schools remain in the bottom five percent for over a decade and perform worse than the local districts they started in. This is a concerning legacy for our state to continue. Legislators like Antonio Parkinson and Scott Cepicky have pointed out the failings of ASD for years.
The ASD has had employee turnover issues and has had a revolving door of leaders in ASD since the 2012-13 school year. As late as 2019, the state Department of Education said that its team was “committed to the ASD as the state’s most rigorous intervention” and “working to ensure its success with a real sense of urgency.”
"The state-funded program has been around for over a decade and has yet to achieve any success. If it were privately funded, it would have been shut down long ago due to the 'sunk cost fallacy' of throwing good money after bad. It is time for the state to take a hard look at the situation and make the decision to close down the ASD. Spending money on something does not justify continuing to do so. It is not just about past mistakes or efforts, but what is best for the future of the children in those communities.
The state tried to play semantics and sell improvements calling it ASD 2.0. However, the “latest version did not fare any better. The state should work with local school districts to provide additional dollars for specific solutions in these schools.
What are some of the lessons that have been learned? There is no quick fix to turning around a school or district; it requires hard work and time. Families should also be included in the decision-making process, and it is important to engage with the community that is being served authentically. Local schools and districts should lead the changes, not Nashville bureaucrats. Collaboration between state and local officials is vital. Both must be accountable for results.
In 2021, the School Turnaround Pilot Program Act was successfully implemented in Memphis-Shelby County Schools. The program focused on the Hawkins Mill Elementary and Trezevant High Schools, which are situated in low-income areas of Memphis, Tennessee. Both schools have been listed as Priority schools by the state since the 2011-12 school year, due to their poor academic performance and high rates of chronic absenteeism.
Between 2022 and 2023, Hawkins Mill’s absenteeism rate dropped from 20% to 5%. In 2022, the school exited Tennessee’s Priority status list and was named a 2022 Reward School, Tennessee’s designation for schools that show “strong growth.”
During the 2021-22 school year, Trezevant High School met the state's required graduation rate of 67%. Moreover, the percentage of chronically absent students decreased from 38.3% in the 2020-21 school year to 29.4% in the 2021-22 school year. Additionally, in 2023 Trezevant successfully met the exit criteria and was removed from Tennessee's Priority status list.
This collaborative approach with the educators in Hawkins Mill and Trezevant sets the foundation for school faculty and leadership to keep moving forward in the future in a unified manner. The School Turnaround Pilot Program was successful, whereas the ASD was an abysmal failure. The School Turnaround Pilot Program in Memphis focused on leadership development and teacher development, winning parent and community support before implementation.
Why did it take so long for the state to understand the failure of ASD? Those well-versed in policy understand that when the government attempts to address every issue, it often ends up creating more issues in the process. This, in turn, leads to increased spending as the government tries to tackle the problems it has created. Unfortunately, this cycle only perpetuates itself and results in a larger, more burdensome government.
Reagan once said, "The more the plans fail, the more the planners plan." As a result, the government grows bigger, and our freedom vanishes. Local control over education is being lost for parents and teachers. It is high time that we recognized that the ASD is not the answer. Taxpayers should have a billion different questions if lawmakers do not understand that fact by now.
JC Bowman is the Executive Director of Professional Educators of Tennessee, a non-partisan teacher association headquartered in Nashville, Tennessee.