American public education has overcome all sorts of roadblocks in its illustrious history — but in facing the problem of persistently failing schools, our traditional systems have hit a wall. Even when given some powerful turnaround tools under NCLB — including chartering — districts typically have opted for the most cosmetic and non-disruptive options. States have generally acquiesced.
A breakthrough happened in 2004, when Louisiana created its Recovery School District (PDF), able to take over schools (not districts) and either run them directly or charter them. The RSD’s success (which I’m happy to debate with the chronic skeptics) has so far inspired three other states to create full-scale recovery districts with similar intervention powers (Tennessee and Michigan, both underway, and Virginia, due to start next year). Texas has a strong recovery-district bill now moving through its legislature; and a half-dozen states have created “RSD-Lite” knockoffs that provide new resources but no change in district governance.
The good folks at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute asked me to look at these innovations, and this week published Redefining the School District in Tennessee, my take on the Volunteer State’s Achievement School District. It’s partly an attempt to describe the nuts and bolts — how they do finance and services and teacher recruitment — but also to convey the flavor of this enterprise under the galvanic leadership of Chris Barbic, who took on the ASD after a decade spent founding and running Houston’s Broad-Prize-winning Yes Prep. He and his team are not only setting serious stretch goals — moving bottom-5% schools into the top 25% of proficiency statewide — but getting there by attending to “hearts and minds” as well as classroom practice.
Lots of lessons to learn, lots to argue about… have at it!