Atlanta’s New Superintendent Should Not Agree to Be Responsible for Narrowing the Achievement Gap

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"Creative Commons Learning" by Sue Richards is licensed under CC BY 2.0

“Creative Commons Learning” by Sue Richards is licensed under CC BY 2.0

The Atlanta Public Schools (APS) has hired Dr. Meria Carstarphen to be its superintendent for the next three years.  She was hired after a one year search led by 13-member search committee.  She is now superintendent of the Austin Independent School District (TX).  Dr. Carstarphen was the only person put forward to be superintendent by the search committee.  This raised concerns among a number of citizens and groups in Atlanta, but the APS School Board voted unanimously on April 14 to approve the search committee’s one person slate.

Dr. Carstarphen has excellent credentials and experiences and one could conclude that the search committee felt that, but by putting forth only one candidate to be voted on by the APS Board of Education, that decision raised concerns.  Personally, I think the committee put Dr. Carstarphen in a difficult situation.  Search committee members didn’t have to answer any of the tough questions that Dr. Carstarphen fielded in various meetings around the city.

That said, Atlanta has hired a young superintendent with nearly a decade of administrative experience.  She will be held to very high standards, which in the end, should not be used to measure her or the APS’s success.  As you will see just below, the same variables that have been used for the past three decades to decide the effectiveness of a school district are still being used.  Also, there is a disconnect between what Global Education Reform Movement (GERM) leaders (Gates, Duncan, Teach for America, Broad, Kipp, Walton, Fordham Foundation–just to name a few) think school should be about, and what the real world of school, and the real world see as effective, vibrant, humane, and creative school.

The GERM model has infected most western nation’s schools, and as shown in Figure 1 forms the bulk of the “matrix” of schooling and is represented by crystals of quartz (white), and feldspar (grey).  But within this background matrix, are black crystal of mica.  These represent teacher-led innovations that are building up resistance against GERM.  With a bit of background in geology, I thought the thin section of this sample of granite was perfect to tell the story of GERMS and innovations.

These are real innovators, teachers and school administrators, for the most part, who have questioned, argued, resisted, and worked constructively to do the work of teaching and learning with students.  Their ideas often involve collaboration and community-based work.  In some cases, they have risen up and simply said no to the inane nonsense of high-stakes testing which not only takes time and money, but has little to do with their work with students.  And the evidence is that high-stakes testing has no effect on student achievement, the very thing that GERM advocates see as the be-all and end-all of schooling.

These innovative educators interpret the standards in their own way for their students, and many of them figure out ways to prepare their students for the exams to come down the road.  The road to successful public education puts professional teachers, their schools, and students at the center of change.  Change is from the inside-out, not the top-down.


Figure 1. Crystals in granite as metaphors for Global Education Reform Movement (GERM).  GERM dominates as white and grey crystals; teacher-led innovations appears as black mica crystals.

Figure 1. Crystals in granite as metaphors for Global Education Reform Movement (GERM). GERM dominates as white and grey crystals; teacher-led innovations appears as black mica crystals. Modified from “Creative Commons Granite” by Eelco is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Let’s see how this analogy and discussion relates to the situation in Atlanta now that the city has a new superintendent who will begin working with the APS July, 2014 under the three-year contract.

Mandate for a New Superintendent

If you go to the Search Committee website, you will find a document entitled Leadership Profile, Superintendent, Atlanta Public Schools.  The document describes the opportunity and mandate for the new superintendent, as well what the ideal superintendent should be.  I want to look at the mandate in the document because it will be used to answer the question about the effectiveness of Dr. Carstarphen in her role as the APS Superintendent.

According to the document, there are four priorities that the Board of Education and the city of Atlanta are focused:


  • Closing the achievement gap while raising the overall bar for student performance
  • Scaling the success of individual high-performing schools across the district
  • Envisioning and implementing a systemic achievement plan that addresses the needs of a diverse district
  • Developing a realistic timeline for success.

These priorities will be measured by calculating changes in the following observables or:

Evidence of success

  • Reduced drop-out rates
  • Increased percentages of college- or career-ready graduates
  • Pervasive increases in student achievement
  • Significant increase in high performing districtwide.

 Classic GERM Conditions

The priorities listed above that will be used to measure the effectiveness of Dr. Carstarphen, are classic characteristics of the Global Education Reform Model identified by Finnish educator Pasi Sahlberg.

It is important to note the GERM model has emerged over the past three decades, and is not something that happened recently.  However, in the present installment of GERM, wealthy individuals and influential organizations have pushed the GERM onto schooling in such a way, that we are now beginning to see some push back, especially among parents, and teachers and teacher-unions.

There are a few things to look for in the months ahead to find out if Atlanta will continue along the GERM route.

  1. Look for continued push for standards, and adoption of the Common Core.
  2. A second feature to be aware of is the focus on common subjects of reading, writing and mathematics.  Everything else, science, social studies, PE, art, and music will be of secondary importance.
  3. Look for the use of high-stakes tests to be used to measure the all important achievement scores especially in reading and math.
  4. Look for a corporate management model as the way improvement is driven and measured.   The borrowing of ideas from the business world will end up harming and limiting the real work of teaching.
  5. And then, to continue with the business model, the system will be accountable through one reason: high-stakes tests of student achievement.  The pressure will be to improve scores and if they are not improved, then the superintendent and all the schools in the APS will be considered failures.

But Here is the Problem: Achievement Won’t Change using GERM

Ed Johnson, an expert on systems theory, has done an analysis of reading and mathematics in American cities using data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). He writes that “since 2003, the (NAEP), commonly known as “The Nation’s Report Card” and respected for being untainted by political ideologies and agenda, administers the Trial Urban District Assessment (TUDA) to voluntarily participating urban school districts.  TUDA Reading was first administrated in 2002 in Grades 4 and 8 to six urban school districts, including Atlanta Public Schools (APS or “Atlanta”).  TUDA Math was first administered in 2003 in Grades 4 and 8 to ten urban school districts, again including Atlanta. By 2013, TUDA had twenty-one urban school districts participating.  The next TUDA administration will be in 2015.  Austin Independent School District (AISD or “Austin”) participated for the first time in 2005.”

Systemic Stories

The Johnson TUDA analysis provides a portrait or a picture of how Atlanta and Austin (the previous district led by the new Atlanta superintendent) have done in Reading and Mathematics since 2002 for Atlanta, and 2005 for Austin.  The graphs that he has produced tell a “systemic story” of various systems.  For example, Figure 2 shows how math achievement at 8th grade behaves as a system.  You can view all of his graphs here to view Reading as a system, Mathematics as a system, 4th grade and 8th grade as systems.  In no case, according to Ed Johnson does systemic mean students.

Note, that all scores for the ten years fall within predicted levels (Lower control limits-LCL and Upper control limits–UCL) for each district.  There is variation, but the variation is “caused” by the system of 8th grade math, and doesn’t seem to be affected by changes in curriculum, standards, or administration.  For example, during this period, Atlanta had two superintendents, Dr. Beverly Hall and Dr. Erroll Davis.  Even after the Atlanta cheating scandal, scores actually went up.


Figure 2.  Systemic Story of NAEP 8th Grade Math Scores on the TUDA Assessment for 21 Districts, including Atlanta and Austin.  This graph shows 8th grade math as a system.

Figure 2. Systemic Story of NAEP 8th Grade Math Scores on the TUDA Assessment for 21 Districts, including Atlanta and Austin. This graph shows 8th grade math as a system.


Achievement Gap

What about the achievement gap?  According to the superintendent mandate for the APS, the new superintendent must figure out a way to narrow the gap between the scores of white student and black students, and white and Hispanic students.

There is a great deal of research on this question.  Diane Ravitch provides an excellent chapter in her book Reign of Error entitled The Facts About the Achievement Gap.  As she points out, the claim is out there that the achievement gaps are large and getting worse.  The reality that she reports is that

We have made genuine progress in narrowing the achievement gaps, but they will remain large if we do nothing about the causes of the gaps.  Ravitch, Diane (2013-09-17). Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools (Kindle Location 1180). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

As she points out, the GERM reformers use this disparity of scores between white students and students of color to claim that public schools are failing.  Using concepts like turnaround schools, the GERMs set up schools for failure by using corporate managers who believe that high-stakes tests measure teacher and school effectiveness.  Not only that they continually “raise the bar” (without any scientific basis) making it impossible for schools to reach.  Remember, as Ed Johnson has shown in Figure 2, the system of math for 4th and 8th grade predicts scores within fairly narrow limits.  Do you think that simply raising the bar (Upper Control Limits) will do the trick.  Hardly.

Here as some facts that Ravitch reports on the achievement gap.

  • In 1990, 83 percent of black students in fourth grade scored “below basic,” but that number fell to 34 percent in 2011.
  • In eighth grade, 78 percent of black students were below basic in 1990, but by 2011 the proportion had dropped to 49 percent.
  • Among Hispanic students, the proportion below basic in fourth grade fell from 67 percent to 28 percent; in eighth grade, that proportion declined from 66   percent to 39 percent.
  • Among white students in fourth grade, the proportion below basic dropped in that time period from 41 percent to only 9 percent; in eighth grade, it declined from 40 percent to 16   percent.
  • The proportion of fourth-grade Asian students below basic dropped from 38 percent in 1990 to 9 percent in 2011; in eighth grade, Asian students who were below basic declined from 36 percent to 14   percent.  Ravitch, Diane (2013-09-17). Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools (Kindle Locations 1198-1200). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Let’s return to Ed Johnson’s research.  He has done an analysis of TUDs and asked Do the TUDs have, have they always had, distinctive White and Black systems of 4th Grade mathematics with respect to NAEP TUDA average scale score gaps?  If you follow this link and at look at his graphs, the answer is yes.  For example, Figure 3 shows the White-Black Gap variation characterizing 4th grade math, 2003 – 2009.  Atlanta is marked in red.

Figure 3. NAEP, Mathematics, 4th Grade, White-Black Gap Variation, 2003 - 2009. Prepared by

Figure 3. NAEP, Mathematics, 4th Grade, White-Black Gap Variation, 2003 – 2009. Prepared

The new superintendent needs to look at this kind of data, and as Ed Johnson suggests, study Atlanta and the D.C. Public Schools to “learn to avoid what these systems do.”  What is causing the distinctive White and Black gap?  What systemic improvement might narrow the gap?

Diane Ravitch reports that progress has been made on achievement gaps.  She writes:

There is nothing new about achievement gaps between different racial and ethnic groups and between children from families at different ends of the income distribution. Such gaps exist wherever there is inequality, not only in this country, but internationally. In every country, the students from the most advantaged families have higher test scores on average than students from the least advantaged families.  Ravitch, Diane (2013-09-17). Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools (Kindle Locations 1216-1218). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

What should the New Superintendent do?

Clearly, recognize the research on achievement and the achievement gap.  Then she needs to work toward a systemic change in the way students, schools and teachers are evaluated.  She needs to shift the focus away from the obsession with high-stakes testing as a measure of student learning, and school effectiveness.  Is she willing to fight a bureaucracy that has systematically put in place a system that doesn’t work.

If she is, then she might follow these suggestions from Dr. Pasi Sahlberg.  As he points out, none of the characteristics that I listed of the GERM model of education have been adopted in Finland.  Instead, these are what might characterize a new Atlanta Public School system:

  • high confidence in teachers and principals as high professionals;
  • encouraging teachers and students to try new ideas and approaches, in other words, to put curiosity, imagination and creativity at the heart of learning; and
  • purpose of teaching and learning is to pursue happiness of learning and cultivating development of whole child.

Dr. Sahlberg has some very powerful words of wisdom for any school administrator or school board.  He writes:

The best way avoid infections of GERM is to prepare teachers and leaders well. In Finland all teachers must have masters degree in education or in the field of their subject. This ensures that they are good in what they do in classrooms and understand how teaching and learning in their schools can be improved. School principals are also experts of educational change and can protect their schools and school system from harmful germs.

Instead of focusing on achievement, use systems theory to work with the APS.  What do you think?

About Jack Hassard

Jack Hassard is a writer, a former high school teacher, and Professor Emeritus of Science Education, Georgia State University.