Published Online: April 12, 2016
Published in Print: April 13, 2016, as Former Schools Chiefs Counter Criticism Of State-Run 'Opportunity' Districts


Former Schools Chiefs Counter Criticism of State-Run 'Opportunity' Districts

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To the Editor:

The recent Education Week Commentary "When 'Opportunity' Is Anything But", which argued against state opportunity school districts, is a hyperbolic warning built on distorting the facts and attacking straw men.

In our states, Louisiana and Tennessee, state-run opportunity districts that develop new options for students in chronically low-performing schools have raised student achievement. These states are mentioned, and their progress is discounted, in the Commentary.

In New Orleans, where the Recovery School District has been working for more than a decade, academic results are strong. Tulane University recently reported that students in New Orleans schools overseen by the RSD moved "up by 0.2 to 0.4 standard deviations and boosted rates of high school graduation and college entry. We are not aware of any other districts that have made such large improvements in such a short time."

In Memphis, where the Achievement School District has been working for three years, there have been both bright spots and challenges. Bright spots include students in ASD schools making double-digit proficiency gains in math and science and growing their achievement faster than the state average, in an era when Tennessee is the fastest-growing state in the nation in student achievement. While ASD students demonstrated strong growth in math and science, improving literacy rates remains a challenge both in the ASD and across districts in Tennessee. But Vanderbilt researchers who recently assessed the new ASD schools concluded that negative judgments—such as those drawn by the Commentary's authors—were premature because of the short time frame that the program had been in place.

We don't think opportunity school districts are the answer to every problem. And we wouldn't urge Georgia or Pennsylvania to ignore such complementary actions as funding students more equitably, encouraging serious district-led improvements, and strengthening teacher training and recruitment.

But when the lessons learned from Louisiana and Tennessee are embraced, future opportunity school districts can be more successful than these promising ones have already proven to be.

Paul Pastorek
Public Education Consultant
New Orleans, La.
Chris Barbic
Executive Coach
Nashville, Tenn.

Paul Pastorek is a former chief state school officer in Louisiana. Chris Barbic is a former superintendent of the Achievement School District in Tennessee. Education Post submitted this letter on behalf of the authors.

Vol. 35, Issue 27, Page 25

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