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

Latest Story

"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?

Will the Atlanta Public Schools Make Foolish or Wise Decisions?

Used with permission of Dustin at
Used with permission of Dustin W. Stout at

I found this poster while reading over on Dustin Stout’s amazing work on creative design and social media. Dustin was reminded of this Bertrand Russell quote by a colleague, and superimposed it on a photo to make this Russell poster.

Russell’s Fools, fanatics and wise men quote resonated with the most recent posts on this bog that have focused on the Atlanta Public Schools (APS).

Bertrand Russell says that “the problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, but Wiser Men so full of doubts.”

Education reform in this country is being led by people  who have convinced themselves that they know what is best for the education of American students.  They shout their claims with money and shenanigans with legislators on the end of their whips.  Whether these people are fools or fanatics is for you to decide.

However, I do know that there are “wise persons” out there who question the claims of these education reformists, and in their work, they document how the persistent attacks on schools, teachers, and students is unwarranted and unsupportable in research.

For years, I’ve written about how these wise persons have confronted the spread of the foolish ideas that dominate public education.  The Atlanta Public Schools are facing two decisions that will affect the future of the school system.  

The APS is about two make two critical decisions:

1. Select a new superintendent: For more than a year, the APS Superintendent Search Committee has sought candidates for the position.  They found one candidate, who they have presented to the district, and in a few days, the APS School Board will vote to accept the candidate as its new superintendent.

2. The APS also has to make a choice to run as (a) an Investing in Educational Excellence” (IE2) district, (b) a “Charter System,” or (c) a “Status Quo” system.


We’ve been making foolish decisions about how and for what reasons schools should be part of their communities. We’ve listened to the shouts of fools and fanatics who have ignored the signals and the research on learning and instead have injected schools with the virus, GERM (Global Education Reform Movement).  According to Pasi Sahlberg, GERM is a virus that has infected many nations in their march to “reform” education.  In his view, GERM is characterized by standardization (Common Core), core subjects (math, reading, science), teaching to the test, corporate management style, and test-based accountability.    In the meantime, keep in mind that GERM has created opportunity for the flow of money into education beyond our wildest dreams.   Between the Gates Foundation, the National Governors Association, the Council of Chief State Officers, the U.S. Department of Education, billions of dollars has been earmarked to support the GERM virus.  Gates has already spent $2.3 billion on the Common Core, and the U.S. Department of Education has invested more than $4.5 billion in the Race to the Top.  

The GERM virus is enhanced by these organizations who think that the academic performance of students is the most important outcome of K-12 education.

Wise Persons Speak

Yet, there are voices of wise persons who are often drowned out by fools and fanatics.  They oppose the further spread of GERM, and doing something about it.

In many communities, parents are opting their children out of state mandated tests. In other districts, teachers are refusing to give their students some of the mandated tests. All around the country people are raising heck about the Common Core.

In some cities, teacher’s unions, with support from parents, have gone on strike opposing government policies that continue to shut down schools inflicted by that virus.

Closer to home, I’ve reported on the voices of two wise persons, Andrew Young and Ed Johnson.

Leaders In Atlanta

Andrew Young and Ed Johnson are citizens of Atlanta whose work in politics, civil rights, and education are examples of the kind of wise person thinking that follows.

Andrew Young spoke out at the trial of Beverly Hall, suggesting to the judge to end the travesty of trying to convict dr hall and dozens of teachers from the APS. The continuation of this trial will only prolong the healing that is happening in Atlanta. There is evidence that the Atlanta test erasure scandal was an unintended consequence of the GERM virus.  Young is correct to say that we have to move beyond this trial.

Ed Johnson has been speaking and writing (documented here) about how the APS could improve the quality of education in its schools, and has backed up his ideas with research on systems theory, and evidence that achievement scores have not and will not change unless we view education as a humane, public, moral and ethical enterprise.

More than anyone that I know, Ed Johnson has offered the APS advice on how to bring a new sense of leadership to its schools, and how to view and run schools based on Edward Deming’s ideas.  In this regard, he believes schools can not be improved by trying to improve the parts separately.  It is a sure path to failure.

For example, some advocates of educational reform believe that student achievement can be improved by weeding out the bad teachers.  Millions of dollars have been invested in using student high-stakes test scores to check teacher performance using a technique called Value Added Measure (VAM).  Teachers whose VAM scores are low can be identified, and according to these experts, teachers with low scores must be bad teachers.  Getting rid of “defects” in any system will not improve the system or the part that was identified.  Instead, a better investment would be to ask how can we improve the quality of teaching, and what can be done to improve the teaching of all educators.

Systems thinking means that all parts of a school system are interdependent and must be viewed as a whole. The Atlanta Public Schools (APS) is a system of connected and interdependent parts, and to improve the quality of the APS, it is critical to look at the APS as a whole.

Atlanta is set to make two decisions, and these decisions are being made based on the Global Education Reform Model, and Ed Johnson, and others are urging the APS School Board to re-examine their views in light of a quality and systems view of education.

In correspondence with the Atlanta Board of Education, Ed Johnson has worked with other activists in Atlanta to urge the ABE to postpone its vote on a new superintendent until the Search Committee provides a slate of nominees, and not only one choice.  How in a democratic society and for a public education system, can we enable a group to dictate the outcome of such a critical decision.

In a recent email, Ed Johnson talks about the choice that all systems in Georgia have to make about how it will run.  The Georgia Department of Education has mandated that each district choose one of three ways to operate: an Investing in Educational Excellence” (IE2) district;  a “Charter System;” or a “Status Quo” system.

He writes:

During a recent Atlanta Board of Education (ABE) meeting, a board member or the superintendent – someone – mentioned Atlanta Public Schools (APS) needing to prepare a five-year strategic plan. This was mentioned without stating why the plan is needed.

Well, might it be because an APS five-year strategic plan would be necessary in order for the ABE to choose to operate APS as an “Investing in Educational Excellence” (IE2) district, or perhaps a “Charter System?”

The ABE must understand it has moral, ethical, civic, and democracy relevant responsibilities to know to choose but one option: “Status Quo,” pursuant to O.C.G.A. § 20-2-80, Requests for increased flexibility; requirements, paragraph (b), specifically.

The other two options, IE2 and Charter System, violate all that represents moral, ethical, civic, and democratic mindedness and ideals in service to the common good.

Moreover, the options IE2 and Charter System symbolize a kind of abject poverty of thinking some elected officials have brought into our legislative processes, such as this from Rep. Ed Setzler:

“[N]ot only does choice provide options to ALL parents (wealthy parents already have choice), but it creates market forces that reform the nearby public schools who must perform at a higher level to stay attractive to parents; as I watch the NFL playoffs this evening, I wonder if the New England Patriots would be as good as they are if they never had compete[d] with other world-class teams to be successful.”

Then he warns us not to fall for the foolish and intimidating behavior of those who advocate the GERM.  He says:

Please, let not “Choice” proponents, such as Rep. SetzlerRep. Alisha Thomas Morgan, and similar others fool and intimidate with their derisive rhetoric against “Status Quo.” Obviously, they mean for the label “Status Quo” to elicit a repulsive reaction. And that they do this simply exposes the depth of their abject poverty of thinking, in spite of being highly educated, one might suppose.

Contrary to what one or two ABE members and others contend, there is no loss associated with choosing “Status Quo.” There is, however, unfettered opportunity to learn to improve the APS. But that is the rub, as to improve APS requires learning more so than mandating, cooperating more so than competing (à la Rep. Setzler, above), leading more so than managing. It is these matters that challenge “Choice” proponents’ abject poverty of thinking that evidences a laziness to learn to provide for the continual improvement of our public education systems.

Atlanta should reject becoming either an investment or charter district.  It needs to rethink in a systems view the education, such as those described by the work of the Finnish educator, Pasi Sahlberg or the British educator Peter Barnard.  Ed Johnson writes:

But call it what they will, “Status Quo” is the only choice the ABE must consider and choose. “Status Quo” is the only choice that offers the opportunity for the APS to genuinely recover from its recent messes and then go on to leapfrog abject poverties of thinking, such as that of Representatives SetzlerMorgan, and similar others.

The ABE needs to think differently about the future of the APS.  It needs to heed the remarkable thinking of wise persons such as Ed Johnson.  They might also consult with Diane Ravitch, Lisa Delpit, or Deborah Meier.